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Compulsive Exercising

I often hear the questions in e-mail or on chat, "how can there be such a thing as too much exercise?" or "how can exercise hurt me?" With an Eating Disorder too much exercise, or Compulsive Exercising, is just another outlet of behavior; Compulsive Exercise is another way to "purge" and disordered eaters who suffer with these symptoms are typically considered to be suffering from Anorexia, or Bulimia non-purging type (no use of laxatives, diuretics or self-induced vomitting). But, there can be sufferers of both who use any or all means of disordered eating behaviors to cope with their emotions and anxiety (participating in restriction - with or without purging, or binging with purging, and compulsive exercise).

Those who may have symptoms of Compulsive Exercise usually have episodes of repeatedly exercising beyond the requirements of what is considered safe, will find time at any cost to do the exercise (including cutting school, taking off from work, hiding in the bathroom and exercising, etc.). The main goal of the exercise can be burning calories and "relieving the guilt" from just having eaten or binged, or to give us "permission" to eat. (i.e., "I can't eat unless I've exercised or know I will exercise.")

Those with Compulsive Exercise behaviors will feel tremendously guilty when they cannot exercise and almost never do it for fun. There is often no satisfaction for any athletic achievements and no self-satisfaction for victory (immediately looking for the next activity to conquer).

Like with all other disordered eating behaviors, on the surface the goal may seem to burn calories and lose weight, but ultimately the exercise gives each sufferer a sense of temporary power, control and/or self-respect. It is another way to forget about their underlying issues and to relieve guilt and pressure of the stresses that build. Some will continue to exercise with a feeling that it is a chore or a punishment, others will be addicted to the sense of power and self-respect they feel from the activity. The fact remains that this is addictive behavior, and is putting the individual's physical safety, emotional health and other areas of their life (job, school, family, etc.) in jeopardy because of the compulsive nature of the exercise.

Some of the physical dangers that may become an issue for someone exercising too much can be: dehydration, stress fracture and osteoporosis, degenerative arthritis, amenorrea (loss of menstrual cycle) and reproductive problems, and heart problems. Also see the Physical Dangers page.

Often times the participation in athletics or dancing can play a role... because of the emphasis in which society, coaches and/or parents may place on the importance to remain thin to be successful in these activities. Due to pressures in competition, and the pressure they may be receiving to succeed and win, there is additional stress (combined with any family problems, relationship issues, pressure from peers, history of abuse, etc.) they find a need to cope with, the risk for developing an Eating Disorder may be increased. Sufferers may receive a great deal of praise from their coaches and parents in their ability to stay "fit and trim" and this continues to fuel the destructive behavior. Some will even use their status as an athlete or dancer as an excuse to engage in compulsive exercise (as well as other Eating Disorders behaviors).

Link: Mirror-Mirror -- Eating Disorders in Athletes

Specifically there are some groups of athletes that tend to resort to disordered eating patterns and behaviors (extreme compulsive exercise, and/or use of laxatives and diuretics) explicitly for competition, though they may or may not clinically have an Eating Disorder (no psychological symptoms). Dancers, runners, gymnasts and wrestlers seem to be at an elevated risk of serious injury or death because of their desire to lose weight extremely rapidly directly prior to an event. The question that needs to be asked is why certain athletes may find such a desire or feel pushed to "win" at all costs, even if that includes permanent injury or death.

For the non-athlete, it may be important to note that while facing recovery each sufferer may be at an increased risk of developing Compulsive Exercise behaviors. This is because while they are working on their issues of recovery, they may convince themselves that beginning to exercise equates to taking care of their body. Because they are still in the process of healing from and learning ways to cope with the issues that lead to their disorder, it can quickly lead to Compulsive Exercise as a "replacement" for restriction or purging, while the person struggling will convince themself they are doing their body good. Exercise should never be suggested by a doctor during initial stages of recovery, and any recommended exercise later on needs to be closely monitored.

For the average individual, healthy exercise is considered to be 20 to 30 minutes of athletic activity (walking, slow jogging, weight training, aerobics, bicycling, etc.) 4 or 5 times per week. For the non-athlete, more than 45 minutes to an hour of these types of activites at a time, for more than 5 days a week can be dangerous, can cause physical strain on the body, and can be considered obsessive and disruptive (to a person's life in general). The goal of exercise is to keep the body healthy while remaining fun.

For the athlete or dancer, unhealthy exercise depends on each individuals sport, level of activity, personal achievement goal (for example, if the goal is to compete in a 25 mile marathon - not a goal to lose weight), and overall fitness. Dancers and athletes should be regularly seen by their doctors in order to make sure they are not over-doing it and damaging their bodies. Caloric and fluid intake should reflect their level of activity and age to be sure they are getting the proper fuel their bodies need, and to make sure they do not become dehydrated. It is essential to check with your doctor to find out what your calorie requirements are if you are an athlete or dancer.

It's important to remember that Compulsive Exercise is another way an Eating Disorders sufferer copes. By itself, it is dangerous, as much so as restricting, binging, purging, and/or the use of diet pills and laxatives. Combining restriction (with or without purging) or binging and purging with Compulsive Exercise can quickly lead to a great number of serious physical dangers(kidney failure, heart attack) and death.

Link: ANRED -- Athletes and Eating Disorders


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