Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is exercise bulimia?

I was into sports my whole life. I started competitive swimming at the age of 5 and was the only girl on an all boys soccer team at age 6. (I also scored the first goal of the season.) I love competition and physical activity. It is a part of who I am. But when I was in high school, my love grew into an obsession.

I was on a highly competitive swim team. We practiced before and after school and sometimes swam up to 10,000 yards in one practice. My freshman year I literally would eat, swim, and go to school. I was too tired to do anything else. My body was pure muscle- what today I would call lean, toned, and beautiful. Back then I saw myself as big, bulky and fat.

We all know the dangers of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. But did you know it is dangerous to get too much exercise? I was starting to exhibit symptoms of exercise bulimia. or compulsive exercise, and suffered inwardly from guilt, anxiety, depression and body image issues. Getting fit is an American ideal but I was secretly on a path to self-destruction.

When I was growing up, the concept of exercise bulimia wasn't ever addressed. When you are an athlete you get a free pass that prevents you from confronting it because people expect you to exercise at near-compulsive levels.

How can there be such a thing as too much exercise? Isn't exercise a good for you?

When exercise becomes compulsive, it is simply another way to "purge' the goal of exercise becomes burning calories and relieving the guilt from eating (or binging), or giving yourself "permission"to eat. ("I can't eat unless I've exercised or know I will exercise.")

For me, this became a continuous cycle. Counting calories in my head, trying to go to the gym (where machines would tell me how many calories I was burning), trying starvation diets like eating only carrots for a week, all the while analyzing and obsessing about what I looked like in the mirror. I had a drawer of jeans in my room and I can't tell you how many times a day I would try them on to see how I looked. I used to pat my hips and dream they would go away so I could be stick thin like the models. I hated myself, I hated my body and I hated the anxiety and depression I was dealing with as an exercise bulimic.

As with all other disordered eating behaviors, the surface goal of burning calories and losing weight was only part of the picture. Ultimately, compulsive exercise gives each sufferer a sense of temporary power, control and/or self-respect. It is an underlying emotional issue and to relieve the guilt and pressure of stress. Some will continue to exercise with the 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. This puts the individuals physical safety, emotional health and other areas of their life in jeopardy.

What should you do if you suspect you or your child has crossed the line from a healthy desire to exercise to an unhealthy compulsion?

Many compulsive exercisers need therapy. To get started, call your doctor to ask for a referral.

Warning signs of Exercise Bulimia...

  • Does the person exercise so much that they are missing out on life's events?

  • Is the person choosing to exercise over going out, going to work, going to social events, etc.?

  • Does the person continue to exercise even if they have an illness?

  • Does the person workout for hours at a time?

  • Does the person seem to get depressed or anxious if they have to skip an exercise session?

  • Does the person talk about exercising a lot?

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