“Almost there, just 50 more calories to go,” you think to yourself as you finish your cardio workout at the gym. You’re there every day, sometimes after going for a morning run.
It consumes your thoughts. It takes priority over important things you need to do. It doesn’t matter though, “I just have to burn off those calories. If I plan to eat later today, I better burn off even more.” If you’ve ever felt this way, you may suffer from exercise bulimia.
Exercise bulimia by definition is a form of bulimia in which a person compulsively exercises in an effort to burn the calories of food energy to an excessive level, which affects their health in a negative way.
Here at Bulimia Help, we help people recover from various forms of bulimia. The two widely-known types of bulimia are purging type and nonpurging type. Exercise bulimia falls into the nonpurging type category. This means that exercise is used in place of purging. Some people suffer a combination of both and use purging and excessive exercise simultaneously, in an attempt to eliminate calories.
So, what exactly is exercise bulimia?
Exercise bulimia is a form of bulimia nervosa. It comes with an intense desire and obsession with working out and burning calories. It can include tracking everything eaten and calculating how to burn it off. It can also include a desire to exercise until a certain number of calories are burned or a feeling of ‘emptiness’ is achieved.
It is much like purging type bulimia because food eaten must not be allowed to remain in the body for caloric absorption. In other words, all food eaten must be negated somehow. It is also accompanied by anxiety around food and calories, preoccupation with weight and often a distorted body image.
Some people suffer a combination of both, while others suffer only with the workout serving as a means of purging.
What’s the difference between being fit and having a problem with over-exercising?
There is a fine line between striving for fitness and having an obsessive relationship with exercise. Many people work out several times a week to be healthy. Others who are at risk have an addiction to exercise or suffer extreme anxiety if they miss a workout. They may miss out on spending time with friends and family because of this. They sometimes fast or restrict if working out is not a possibility. In addition, they work out even when sick or injured. Preoccupation with weight and caloric intake are also risk factors.
People can exercise regularly without suffering from an eating disorder. If working out interferes with your life, however, you may need to seek help.
How do I know if I have exercise bulimia?
Exercise bulimia is a fairly new diagnosis. Because working out regularly is viewed as a healthy habit, it often goes undiagnosed or unrecognized by friends and family. The following questions can indicate that a person is struggling:
- Do you regularly skip other functions or events in order to exercise?
- If you miss a workout, do you experience extreme anxiety or guilt?
- Has anyone ever suggested that you have a problem with exercising too much?
- Do you work out until you have burned a specific number of calories?
- Are you excessively tracking and analyzing your food intake?
- Is fitness one of the most important aspects of your life?
- Do you base your self-worth on physical factors, such as weight, body mass index, running distance or endurance?
- If female, is your menstruation infrequent or extremely light?
- Do you constantly measure yourself, either on a scale or with a measuring tape?
If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you may need to seek help. A licensed professional can provide a diagnosis, and you should seek a physical exam if you have been excessively working out for a long period of time.
What are the risks of exercise bulimia?
Exercise bulimia may seem less harmful to the body than purging-type bulimia, but it actually poses very serious health risks. It can affect your body in these ways:
1. Negative Impact on the Heart- Cardiologists James O’Keefe and Carl Lavie, who are both runners, advise that vigorous exercise should be limited to no more than 30-50 minutes a day. They describe how too much intense exercise can, “cause dilation and stretching of the heart’s chambers, especially the atria and right ventricle.” What this means is that the pumping capacity of the heart can actually decrease, which makes it work harder. One healthy benefit of moderate exercise is that the heart becomes stronger with an increased pumping volume, and in turn is not working as hard while at rest. Over-exercise has the opposite effect.
2. Weakened Immune System- Studies show that moderate exercise can provide a boost to the immune system. However, over-exercising is linked to an increase in respiratory infections and other illnesses such as influenza, which also require a longer recovery if the body is fatigued.
3. Weakened Bones and Joints- Too much exercise can cause stress fractures in bones and excessive wear and tear on joints. People who over-exercise often have joint replacement procedures at an earlier age than if they had exercised in moderation.
4. Damage to Internal Organs- Exercise releases free radicals into the body. Normally, this is a cleansing process that is completed while the body is at rest. Without adequate rest, those free radicals and toxins remain in the body and can cause damage to the internal organs.
5. Muscle Wear and Tear- The body builds muscle during rest, not during exercise. Without enough time to recover, small muscle tears can become big problems. Pain and body aches are common side effects of over-exercise, as well as pulled muscles and strained ligaments and tendons.
6. Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies- The body needs certain vitamins and minerals in order to function properly. Over-exercise, especially when combined with restricting or dieting can deplete the body of nutrients, and cause complications such as low potassium, which is related to heart problems.
7. Increased Food Cravings/Increased Binging- Too much exercise can increase hunger and food cravings, which in turn can cause a binge urge. Exercise causes the body to burn carbohydrates which need replaced. Extreme exercise can cause intense carbohydrate and sugar cravings, and if these carbohydrate cravings aren’t met, a binge urge is likely to occur.
What are some steps I can take to recover?
Get Help. Many people feel ambitious to recover on their own. Others are simply afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid. There are some great sources of support, such as Bulimia Help, but you can also talk to friends and family. The important thing is to find someone you trust to help you.
Practice rest and self-care. Examine whether or not you are getting plenty of sleep. If you aren’t sleeping enough, try to adjust your schedule to include plenty of time to unwind at night and sleep for 7-8 hours.
Manage stress. Many people rely on exercise as a means to relieve stress in their daily lives. Brainstorm other healthy outlets for stress management and begin to use those new healthy habits.
Ease your mind. You must accept that over exercising is not healthy and that you are doing this to recover. Your weight will not spiral out of control, and you will not become “out of shape” by exercising less. Learn new ways of viewing health and fitness.
Reduce the amount of time you spend working out. You may also need to reduce the exertion level of your exercise routine. You can do this gradually since reducing all at once can cause some anxiety.
Do I have to stop working out entirely to recover?
No. A full recovery from bulimia means having a healthy relationship with food and your body. Exercise can be an important part of this relationship. In fact, moderate exercise can actually help promote a healthy body-image. The key is to break the addiction cycle of over-exercising, just as the binging and purging cycle must be broken. This may require a reduction in the amount of time spent exercising, or reducing the level of exertion during the initial resting period of recovery.
Will I gain weight if I stop exercising so much?
It is a possibility that weight will fluctuate some during recovery. This is a normal process as your body is adapting to having enough food available. Your metabolism can take some time to adjust. In the end however, recovery means reaching your ‘set point weight’ or the weight you are naturally designed to be. Exercising excessively may make you feel like your weight is under control, but in reality it can actually increase your appetite, causing binges to be bigger and more difficult to control. Once your body adapts to less strenuous, moderate exercise you will stop having such severe binge urges if you are following structured eating.
Those with exercise bulimia often feel that if they don’t exercise an extreme amount, their weight would spiral out of control. This is a thought similar to believing that purging keeps people from gaining weight. Both theories are inaccurate, as purging only causes more binging, which often leads to weight gain. People do not need to over exercise in order to maintain a healthy weight. You burn calories doing all kinds of things, even sleeping! Your body’s natural functions alone require lots of energy. Excessive exercise is simply not necessary to maintain a healthy metabolism.
Is a full recovery possible?
Absolutely! Obsessive exercise doesn’t have to consume your life and damage your body any longer! A lifelong recovery from bulimia empowers you to respect and care for your body. Through the Bulimia Help Method, you can achieve a full recovery from bulimia, even exercise bulimia. Instead of exercise being a chore or requirement, you can find fun activities that you enjoy. You will have more energy and time for the things that are important to you.