Compulsive Exercise Linked to Eating Disorders

Exercise is a wonderful thing. It can help us to stay healthy. It can improve our mood when we are feeling low. It can become an opportunity for social interactions. How sad that such a wonderful habit can also become an unhealthy activity when it gets out of balance. Experts say that many who suffer with an eating disorder also engage in compulsive exercise. As many as 40 percent of those who struggle with anorexia exhibit not only restrictive eating, but compulsive exercise as well.

So how can you know when exercise has transformed from healthy habit into unhealthy compulsion? Can you track the number of hours a person exercises to find out if her or she is addicted? Is it compulsive once a person spends X amount of time exercising? The real gauge of whether a person is at a healthy level of exercise or has crossed into danger is not external but internal.

Whatever amount of time a person commits to exercise, if they feel upset and agitated when they cannot exercise, this could be a sign of trouble. The crux of the issue is motivation. For people with eating disorders, exercise can become a way to compensate for every bite of food. When a person rigidly refuses to eat unless they can exercise it off, then it could be a red flag that an eating disorder is present. It may be that exercise has replaced purging through vomiting or laxatives as the means of erasing unwanted calories. Or it could be that this is another out-of-bounds control mechanism relating to food.

Exercising compulsively when too little food or liquid has been consumed is a dangerous combination. Undernourished bodies are vulnerable to a host of physical problems. Weakened bones can easily fracture or break and may develop osteoporosis. Normal hormone cycles can become disturbed, dehydration may occur and even the heart is jeopardized when too much exercise is demanded on too little fuel.

Although it is nearly impossible to see into another person’s heart to read their motivation for hyper-exercise, there are outward signs that the inward thinking is somehow askew. For example, if the person routinely avoids other meaningful activities in favor of exercise, there may be an unhealthy emphasis on physical exertion. When a person must engage in physical exercise rather than attend family or social functions, fulfill their school or work responsibilities or just relax while on vacation, then it is possible that exercise is motivated by an unhealthy drive. Whenever exercise takes over as a predominate concern, it may have become a compulsion.

While compulsive exercise often accompanies an eating disorder before it is detected, sometimes the compulsion may form as the person begins to heal from an eating disorder. In this case, fear is still motivating behavior. The person needs to exercise in order to assuage the guilt they feel over eating.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that carry tremendous risks of physical damage.  Despite the fact that the symptoms of these conditions are external, the real source of the illness is found inside the person. Psychological treatment is really necessary in order to root out wrong thinking patterns that are the source of wrong relationships toward food and exercise.

Posted on May 18th, 2013

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