Excessive Exercising and Eating Disorders

We typically think of bulimia as a disorder where a person eats huge quantities of food (the binge) and then vomits (purges) to eliminate the unwanted calories. This description is accurate for many people with bulimia; but, people with the disorder do not always purge through vomiting. Some bulimics compensate for their binges through extreme exercise.

Some people with anorexia may also over-exercise. Even when they are restricting calories, many feel the need to eliminate the few calories they do take in, and choose exercise as their method.

Skilled athletes seem to be particularly prone to developing eating and exercise disorders. Spending hours in the gym or on the field can often be viewed favorably as a sign of commitment and dedication by coaches and fans. But, when someone continues working out to an extreme, even when it has clearly become harmful to themselves, they are likely struggling with an eating disorder and/or additional mental health issues, like depression or anxiety.

The Dangers of Extreme Exercise

Excessive exercise offers a built-in reinforcement: it increases endorphin levels, providing the individual with a sense of well-being. The endorphin levels remain high even though the individual is seriously, and perhaps permanently, compromising their health.

The most significant dangers of extreme exercise are overuse syndromes such as stress fractures, low heart rate, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis.

  • Stress fractures are microfractures of the bone, typically in weight-bearing areas such as feet and lower legs. Stress fractures develop from repetitive, high-impact, weight-bearing aerobic activity. Eating disorder patients, because they often have bone loss from osteopenia or osteoporosis, are particularly susceptible to stress fractures. Often stress fractures do not show up on x-rays but require a bone scan or MRI. Stress fractures limit a person’s ability to exercise, lead to pain during exercise and long-term pain if not allowed to heal, and increase the risk of major bone fractures such as in the back which may ultimately promote curvature of the spine.
  • Bradycardia, or low heart rate, results from reverse metabolism. In response to rapid weight loss, the body protects itself from further loss by slowing the metabolism. A person will experience reduced body temperature and a decreased resting heart rate. He or she may incorrectly perceive her lowered heart rate as a sign of positive heart health due to exercise, when in fact, the heart has slowed in an effort to expend as few calories as possible. The long-term implications of reduced heart rate are the potential for arrhythmias and the prolonging of the heart’s electrical conduction with possible sudden death.
  • For women, amenorrhea (i.e. the cessation of menstruation) results from significant and rapid weight loss and leads to osteopenia and osteoporosis, dangerous losses of bone density that may result in other more serious complications.

Signs of Excessive Exercising

Are you unsure whether your exercise habits have gone from reasonable to excessive? Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you feel guilty if you miss your workout?
  2. Do you still exercise when you are sick or hurt?
  3. Would you miss going out with friends or spending time with family, just to ensure you got your workout in?
  4. Do you freak out if you miss a workout?
  5. Do you calculate how much to exercise based on how much you eat?
  6. Do you have trouble sitting still because you’re not burning calories?
  7. If you’re unable to exercise, do you feel compelled to cut back what you eat that day?

If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, you may be exercising too much and endangering your health as a result.

Get Help at The Meadows Ranch

The Meadows Ranch inpatient programs can help women and adolescent girls in various stages of eating disorder recovery find their way back to a life of health and vitality. We specialize in treating both and the eating disorder and any co-occurring conditions, like depression or anxiety; and, we have staff members who are experienced in treating elite athletes. We also offer Christian-based programming for those interested in exploring their recovery through the lens of their faith. The program focuses on continuing to build skills around relapse prevention, culinary training and nutrition, and allows patients to capitalize on a safe environment for accountability. Call today for more information: 866-390-5100.

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