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Compulsive Exercise

Eating Disorders and Exercise Addiction

We in the United States have developed a skewed notion of healthy exercise. We either don't exercise at all, or we exercise far too much.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy exercise is all about enjoyment. Compulsive exercisers often find no satisfaction in their athletic achievements, and they almost never do it for fun. I ask many of our callers about exercise, and they often report that at least one or both parents are compulsive exercisers whose days are "ruined" if they can't get their five-mile daily run. Exercise addicts will find time at any cost — including cutting school, taking off from work or hiding in the bathroom — to exercise.

Compulsive exercise may be no more than another way to purge. As with all other disordered eating behaviors, the apparent goal is to burn calories and lose weight, but ultimately the exercise provides a temporary sensation of power, control and/or self-respect.

A fundamental principle of Mirasol's treatment philosophy is that eating disorders are chronic stress-related conditions. It's a way to cope with stress, forget about underlying issues, escape inner pain and relieve guilt. Compulsive exercise is as dangerous as restricting, purging or using diet pills and laxatives. Combining restriction and/or binging and purging with compulsive exercise can quickly lead to serious illness (kidney failure, heart attack) or death.

Athletes and Eating Disorders

Athletes may engage in compulsive exercise to please coaches and parents and meet the expectations of others. Eating disorders continue to be on the rise among athletes, especially those involved in sports that emphasize thinness such as gymnastics, figure skating, dancing and synchronized swimming. According to a 1992 American College of Sports Medicine study, eating disorders affect 62 percent of female athletes.

An athlete with an eating disorder and an exercise addiction risks serious medical consequences. Any heart murmurs or arrhythmias are naturally aggravated and made worse. Because their nutrition is so poor, they also risk bone damage and loss from osteoporosis. They're also more prone to stress fractures and other physical injuries than their teammates, and any injuries may take an abnormally long time to heal.

So What is Healthy Exercise?

To maintain cardiovascular health, 2,000-3,500 calories should be burned each week through aerobic exercise, such as running, dancing, cycling and the like. Thirty to 45 minutes a day, five or six days a week is sufficient to acquire these health benefits. Exercise beyond 3,500 calories per week, however, leads to decreased physical benefits and increased risk of injury.

Do I Have an Exercise Addiction?

These red flags that you may be exercising for the wrong reasons are from Disordered Eating, Food Obsessions and Compulsive Exercise by Nancy Clark.

  • preoccupation with exercise routine or intrusive thoughts about exercise that interfere with your ability to concentrate or focus
  • finding time at any cost to exercise, like cutting school or taking time off from work
  • exercise is your social life — you turn down social activities so as not to miss your scheduled workout
  • feeling overly anxious, guilty or angry if unable to exercise and you can't tolerate changes or interruptions of your exercise routine
  • exercising alone to avoid having your routine disturbed
  • exercising is driven primarily by a desire to control your weight, shape and/or body composition
  • food choices are based solely on exercise (you exercise as punishment for eating "bad" foods, to purge calories or you overly restrict what you eat if you can't exercise)
  • lying about exercise or you always exercise alone
  • you can't take rest days or time off from exercise — even if you're injured or ill.
  • persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to control or reduce exercise (e.g., can't take a day off during the week or time off periodically throughout the year)
  • engaging in non-purposeful or excessive exercise beyond a sensible fitness or training program
  • how you feel about yourself on a daily basis is based on how much exercise you perform or how hard you work out
  • exercise isn't fun or pleasurable or you're never satisfied with your physical achievements
  • amenorrhea (loss of three consecutive menses or failure to begin menstruating by age sixteen) and/or stress fractures

FREE Eating Disorder Support Group!

FREE weekly eating disorder support group for adults struggling with food issues, staffed by therapists from Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers. Thursdays from 5:30-6:45 pm at 3116 N Swan in Tucson. For more information, call 520-546-3200.

"Mirasol is light years ahead of any other program in the country."