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Compulsive Exercising

When someone normally talks about exercise, we usually don't envision someone doing 700 crunches, push-ups until their arms burn, and running uncountable miles every day, but this is often what people with eating disorders get caught up in. Along with the starvation and/or purging, someone with an eating disorder may also compulsively exercise out of control - sometimes to the point where eventually bones can become permanently damaged.

Why Does Compulsive Exercise Happen?

The exercising demon is always in cahoots with an eating disorder. Compulsive exercising is just another way for the person to purge themselves of guilt and pain. Often it is used as punishment because the person has eaten over a certain amount of calories, because they have binged that day, or because they did not do well on a test, annoyed a parent, etc. Many times the individual must exercise a certain amount in order to be worthy enough to eat that day or be able to do an enjoyable activity. Exercising a certain, exhausting amount and doing the exercises in a certain order will give the person with an eating disorder a certain sense of power and control as well - the same kind that also comes out of being able to starve and/or purge.

Why Can't the Person Just Stop?

Addiction is the keyword here, my dear. As hard as it is for an "outsider" to imagine, compulsive exercising does indeed become an addiction just like the disordered eating behaviors. The reason it is called COMPULSIVE exercising is that the person cannot control what they are doing eventually. It gets to the point where they absolutely MUST exercise or else. If the person does not or is unable to exercise, they get the same feelings and show the same reaction that someone with anorexia has when they are forced to eat or the same reaction that someone with bulimia has when they are forced to keep down the food of a binge. Panic attacks and sometimes even flashbacks bash into the person head-on leading to hallucinations and shallow, erratic breathing. The person is unable to calm down until they somehow get in their exercising.

Oh these little earthquakes
Here we go again
These little earthquakes
Doesn't take much to rip us into pieces-Tori Amos

It isn't uncommon to find out that a person will exercise in a bathroom stall at school, or miss a day of work to make up running when afflicted with this bothersome pest. Often in hospitals nurses must monitor eating disorder patients when they are in the shower or going to the bathroom because patients will try to sneak in exercise. Realize that these exercises are not fun, and are more like grueling and painstaking, taking up the time, energy, and thoughts of the person afflicted. Worst of all, they can't stop once this gets started.

Medical Problems from Compulsive Exercise

A person with an eating disorder who is also afflicted with compulsive exercise is in extreme danger for developing medical problems. Any heart murmurs or arrythmias are naturally aggravated and made worse. Because the nutrition of someone with an eating disorder is so poor, the individual also runs the risk of bone damage and loss from osteoporosis. In athletes with compulsive exercising it isn't uncommon for them to be afflicted with stress fractures and more physical injuries than their other teammates. Any injuries the person does get do not heal, either, or they take an abnormally long time. A bruise on the hip from bumping into a chair may take as long as two months to fully heal because the body is so run down and does not have the proper nutrition to heal the damage.

Treatment Options for Compulsive Exercise

For the adequate treatment of the compulsive exercising bug, something called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) must be treated ALONG WITH the eating disorder. It is important that you or the person you are concerned about lets their therapist or caretaker know that the eating disorder isn't the only problem that they are battling. Realize that until proper treatment, compulsive exercising is just like alcohol to an alcoholic - they cannot just take "one sip" and not go any further. Once you or the person afflicted is in treatment and learns how to do things in MODERATION, then an exercise regime can be set up once more.

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 5). Compulsive Exercising, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders/articles/compulsive-exercising

Last Updated: June 30, 2020

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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