Excessive exercise: aspiring athlete or eating disorder symptom?
Exercise is a healthy activity that is encouraged in our society to enable positive health and wellbeing. People are often viewed as disciplined if they participate in regular exercise, with their motivation to routinely undertake physical activity even being envied. But what about when someone exercises excessively, to the extent that is causes harm to their body and mind?
When we talk about excessive exercise, it can be difficult to specify how much is too much. In the context of people with eating disorders, exercise is usually seen as excessive when: it interferes with important activities; exceeds three hours a day and causes distress if the person is unable to exercise; it frequently occurs at inappropriate times and places; or exercise continues despite injury or illness.
It has been estimated that nearly 40% of people with eating disorders engage in excessive exercise, highlighting its significance for people living with these illnesses. Excessive exercise and disordered eating can arise from common concerns about the need to control the body, but exercise is seen as more acceptable than disordered eating in achieving this. The importance given to exercise as a way to influence weight or shape and the extent to which guilt is experienced when exercise is not undertaken are key indicators of someone with high levels of eating disordered thinking and reduced quality of life.
It is important to note that excessive exercise does not only affect people with eating disorders. There are people who exercise to such a degree that it can cause them psychiatric distress, yet they feel they cannot stop because of feelings of guilt if they don’t complete a planned workout or are worried about withdrawal symptoms. There are individuals who exercise excessively with little or no preoccupation with their body weight or shape.
A person’s relationship with exercise is very individual and it is not always a negative thing for someone to do a lot of exercise, especially if they are aspiring athletes. Exercise can be incredibly beneficial to people’s bodies and minds. It is only when exercise is done to the extent that it is causing psychological or physical harm that it can become an issue.
Excessive exercise has been found to be common amongst women with the purging subtype of anorexia. Excessive exercise is also associated with anxious and obsessional temperament and personality traits amongst women with eating disorders. Men with eating disorders are less likely than women to use typical compensatory behaviours like vomiting and are more likely to undertake activities such as excessive exercise to try to lose weight or manage the effects of eating. High levels of depression are linked with people with eating disorders who exercise excessively.
Exercise should not be seen as the enemy when it comes to the development of, maintenance of, and recovery from eating disorders. There could actually be benefits to using exercise as an eating disorder intervention under medically approved circumstances. This is particularly true when it comes to improving social behaviours, since those with eating disorders often have poor social relations due to their illnesses isolating them. It is the excessiveness and the motivation behind exercise that is the issue, not exercise itself. It therefore needs to be considered what an individual’s motivation is to exercise, rather than exercise itself.
Strenuous physical activity can have negative effects on malnourished individuals, such as people with eating disorders. It is important to seek medical advice if you are concerned about your own health or that of a loved one who may be exercising excessively. It is best to approach this sensitively with the person who may be living with an eating disorder and exercising excessively. They may be terrified at the idea of reducing or stopping the exercise they do because of the way their eating disorder is controlling them. This is not their fault – this is their eating disorder being challenged. People living with an eating disorder and who are exercising excessively will need a lot of support in overcoming their illness. It is always best to approach the issue with care and compassion.