What is Exercise Bulimia?

Lainie Petersen

Exercise bulimia is a compulsive behavior in which the sufferer over-exercises in hopes of maintaining or lowering their weight. It is often a form of purging — just as a person with bulimia nervosa might force themselves to vomit or use laxatives after eating, a person with exercise bulimia will engage in strenuous exercise after eating a meal. Exercise bulimia can significantly affect the lives of its sufferers in various ways, including temporary and permanent damage to their health, encroaching on their time in ways that affect their responsibilities to their families and employers, and creating significant feelings of failure if they are unable to reach daily exercise goals.

A woman with exercise bulimia compulsively over-exercises.
A woman with exercise bulimia compulsively over-exercises.

In an age of obesity, is difficult to conceive of "too much exercise" being a health problem. Over-exercising, however, can tax the body and may cause damage to joints, ligaments, and other body systems. Many exercise advocates note the importance of taking rest days and allowing muscles to recover. Ironically, binge exercising may not even be the best way to achieve the body type that the exercise bulimic desires. Unfortunately, because exercise bulimia is a compulsive behavior, these facts may not convince someone with the condition to change their behavior.

After eating, people with exercise bulimia feel a compulsive need to exercise.
After eating, people with exercise bulimia feel a compulsive need to exercise.

Symptoms of exercise bulimia vary, but typically include working out for several hours per day, working out while sick or injured, not meeting other responsibilities because of a need to exercise, and engaging in vigorous exercise in response to binge eating. The difficulty in diagnosing exercise bulimia is that some of its symptoms, observed on their own, are within the range of normal human behavior. For example, many athletes, both amateur and professional, do spend several hours a day training for events. Many people also work out as a way of managing stress and may do so during difficult periods of their lives in which it may appear to others that their time might be better spent in other activities. A trained professional can examine a person's behavior and look for patterns that point to compulsive exercise rather than dedication to exercise as a hobby or professional obligation.

The causes of exercise bulimia can also vary, but the condition is often observed in individuals who have very high expectations of themselves and a compulsive desire to succeed. Treating exercise bulimia is often a matter of assisting people in understanding how their perfectionism is unrealistic and damaging to themselves and others. Individuals with the condition can also be evaluated for other eating disorders, such as compulsive overeating, as well as affective disorders, such as depression or anxiety. A person with exercise bulimia may choose to enter a residential treatment program or seek private therapy to help them determine ways to respond to stress and develop realistic expectations of themselves.

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