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Exploring the Link Between Exercise and Eating Disorders

written by: SunnyGriffis • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/15/2011

An ever increasing body of research is exploring the link between exercise and eating disorders. Often labeled as obligatory exercise, exercise dependence, compulsive exercise or overexercising, it affects many athletes and can have long-lasting effects on performance, health and well-being.

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    Exercise and Eating Disorders: Introduction

    While eating disorders generally affect more women than men, many male athletes have the same risk level for certain types of eating pathology as female athletes. Female athletes involved in a sport that emphasizes thinness, such as ballet, gymnastics, and distance running, are more at risk of having an eating disorder. Likewise, male athletes who perform bodybuilding, wrestling, and similar anaerobic sports are also at an increased risk.

    The types of eating disorders that commonly manifest in athletes vary between genders. More male athletes suffer from binge eating disorders than their female counterparts, and they are also more likely to use steam baths to lose weight, according to the Central Region Eating Disorder Services, or CREDS. Female athletes are more likely to suffer from bulimia, CREDS reports.

    Although both genders are greatly impacted by eating disorders in a variety of sports, more field research is needed to find effective treatments. This can only come with a greater understanding of the link between exercise and eating disorders.

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    Symptoms of Obligatory Exercise

    While the American Psychiatric Association, or APA, doesn’t recognize overexercising as a disorder, it does list it as a symptom of bulimia nervosa. In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders the APA defines compulsive exercise as exercise that “significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or when the individual continues to exercise despite injury or other medical complications.”

    Some research points to the theory that exercise addiction only transpires in people with eating disorders, but the research is inconclusive. Symptoms of obligatory exercise include a rigid fitness schedule, a feeling of dread if exercise isn’t performed, and exercising even when sick or injured.

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    Warning Signs of Compulsive Exercise

    Hollyann E. Jenkins and M. Williams, Ph.D. report in “Exercise Dependence and Addiction,” that there are seven warning signs, and they are:

    • exercising in isolation
    • following a rigid exercise pattern or schedule
    • exercising more than two hours a day
    • fixation on weight loss and body image
    • exercising even when injured or sick
    • pushing oneself beyond the point of pain
    • skipping work or other planned activities to exercise
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    Factors that Contribute to Exercise and Eating Disorders

    Researchers at the University of Cincinnati studied the relationship between excessive exercise and eating disorders among college-aged women. Their studies found that the amount of exercise the athletes performed wasn’t as great a marker of an eating disorder as the emotions and attitudes they had toward exercise.

    The researchers looked at three factors that are associated with exercise and eating disorders, including exercise fixation, exercise frequency, and exercise commitment. Exercise fixation factors included feelings and behaviors such as:

    • daydreaming about exercise
    • feeling tense, irritable, or depressed with missed exercise sessions
    • exercising to make-up for overeating
    • feeling guilty over missed workouts

    The scientists found that athletes with a strong emotional attachment to exercise, defined under the exercise fixation factor, were more likely to possess an eating disorder. They further explain that defining overexercising solely on the amount of exercise performed is inadequate.

    Fortunately, more studies are cropping up that explore the link between exercise and eating disorders, and solid treatment plans may be available in the future. If you or someone you know show signs of compulsive exercise or an eating disorder, seek help from a medical professional.

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    Resources

    Central Region Eating Disorder Services: http://www.eatingdisorders.org.nz/index.php?id=762

    Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; American Psychiatric Association; 2000

    BrainPhysics: http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php

    Education Resources Information Center: http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ563378&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ563378

    University of Cincinnati: http://www.csufresno.edu/studentactivities/documents/Exercise%20and%20Eating.pdf