Exercise Bulimia – An Often Overlooked Eating Disorder

Hard to recognise, insidious, and unconsciously encouraged, exercise bulimia is a growing problem that can have serious health consequences. Most of us want to be fit and healthy and so we put in our time at the gym like everyone else, but can we actually become addicted to exercise? How can you tell if things are getting out of control?

Why it’s Easy to Miss Signs of Exercise Bulimia

Exercise addiction seems laughable because, after all, we’re continually encouraged to stay in shape and applauded for sweating it out on the treadmill day after day. Exercise bulimia is less obvious than other eating disorders because sufferers are more likely to achieve and maintain a healthy-looking weight even if the pursuit of this is, in itself, unhealthy.

To friends and family, exercise bulimia may have become simply a part of someone’s personality, letting the signs of addiction go unrecognised and health problems stack up.

Signs of Exercise Bulimia

Lots of us exercise because we enjoy it and want to stay fit and healthy, but those with exercise bulimia use exercise as a form of purging. Some signs that a person’s approach to exercise is unhealthy include:

  • Feelings of guilt and depression if prevented from exercising every day
  • Exercising even when sick or injured
  • Compulsively counting calories ingested and calories burnt
  • Missing social activities to go to the gym
  • Spending excessive amounts of time at the gym after eating a rich meal
  • Skipping sleep in favour of late-night workouts.

Like many eating disorders, exercise bulimia is thought to be particularly common in high-achievers who got straight A’s through school, aced every interview, and are on the fast-track for promotion. Unlike many eating disorders, however, exercise bulimia affects plenty of men as well as women.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t it great to be in shape and be that eager to be in the gym?

The truth is that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and exercise bulimia can lead to:

  • Fatigue and dehydration
  • Reproductive problems (such as missed periods and fertility issues)
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Osteoporosis and arthritis
  • Fractures and strains

Overworking the body can be worse than getting hardly any exercise as the healing process fails to keep up with demands and muscles and bones become weak and fatigued. Additionally, the stress of keeping on top of calorie counts and gym schedules increases the risk of chronic health issues.

Psychological Problems of Exercise Bulimia

In addition to physical deterioration, sufferers of exercise bulimia often experience psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. Relationships may suffer or even fail because of an incessant need to go to the gym rather than to take time to relax over dinner or a movie. A person may even turn down a dream job because there is no company gym.

Overcoming Exercise Bulimia

Exercise bulimia is a difficult addiction to overcome as exercise is positively reinforced by the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that produce a happy high. We are also bombarded with media messages about health, fitness, and appearance and friends, family, and partners may inadvertently support such a proactive approach to exercise, not realising the underlying obsession and compulsion.

When to Seek Professional Help

If someone cannot stop themselves from working out compulsively, even when sick, logs every calorie consumed and every calorie burnt, and starts having their addiction to exercise cut into quality time with loved ones then it is time to seek professional help.

There are counsellors and dieticians who specialise in eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive behaviours and they can help sufferers create a more relaxed approach to food and exercise. Therapists may recommend throwing out food journals, not signing up for a marathon this year, and having an absolute cut-off time from the gym to avoid late-night workouts and get some much-needed sleep.

When and How to Intervene in Exercise Bulimia

If you suspect that a close friend or family member is suffering from exercise bulimia then it can help to acknowledge that their success in achieving a good physique and gently point out that the time they’re clocking at the gym to maintain that is disproportional. This week (Feb 24th- March 2nd) is Exercise Bulimia Awareness Week, so if the marathon-runner in your life is skipping social engagements and seems stressed perhaps instead of expressing envy of their motivation and fitness, a cautious intervention is in order.

Leigh Matthews