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Exercise Bulimia: Eating Disorder?

Updated on June 20, 2011

Exercise bulimia

A rarely recognized and sometimes difficult to comprehend eating disorder, exercise bulimia is frequently misunderstood by the general public. Like bulimia, anorexia, and obsessive compulsive eating disorder, it is a serious health concern that can often lead to a person requiring counseling support from a mental health professional or an eating disorder clinic. To the average person exercise bulimia merely refers to a person having a strong desire to exercise after they have eaten too much. However, the eating disorder that we refer to as exercise bulimia is far more complicated than that.

Bit exercise is good, right?

Normally exercise is a very desirable activity. It helps boost the body’s immune system, it helps strengthen muscles, it aid in weight loss, and often can help prevent health problems like heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and type two diabetes. It has also been associated with improved brain functioning. Studies have indicated show exercise helps rebuild dendrites grow new nerve cells in the brain and can help improve cognitive functioning. Mental health problems have also been shown to be positively affected by regular exercise, in particular depression sufferers often feel better after exercise because the endorphins released during exercise tend to act as the body’s own natural antidepressant.  Exercise has also been shown to improve sleep functioning. Most people think of exercise as a good habit and for good reason.  We have a hard time thinking that there could be such a thing as too much exercise. Yet in some cases that is exactly the problem. Even something as beneficial as exercise, when taken to excess, can result in serious physical and psychological problems.

Exercise bulimia is an eating disorder

Psychologically, exercise bulimia can also take a serious toll. Exercise bulimics often feel anxiety and a sense of panic when they are unable to exercise after eating. In many cases, they suffer from feelings of guilt and experience extreme stress when they are unable to exercise. Further, their bulimia may be associated with feelings of inferiority and they may also suffer from continual self recrimination related to a perceived negative body image. In many cases exercise bulimia is also accompanied by signs of depression, especially when individuals suffering from this disorder are unable to exercise after a meal.

Exercise bulimia is often used as a form of purging calories after binge eating. It can also lead to the person with exercise bulimia burning more calories than they need to take in to maintain their health. As a result, the excessive exercise actually causes anorexia. The exercise bulimic tends to schedule their life around exercise and their obsession will often begins to interfere with daily functioning. It is difficult to know when excessive exercise is becoming an eating disorder but there are some warning signs.

Signs of exercise bulimia

All of the symptoms of exercise bulimia are related to the exercise bulimic’s obsessive desire to rid themselves of calories even when there may be significant social or health related consequences.

1. People with exercise bulimia may miss work, important appointments, or other social engagements so that they can work out.

2. People with exercise bulimia will often workout despite having an injury or illness.

3. People with exercise bulimia will tend to become extremely anxious and even depressed if they are not able to workout.

4. People with exercise bulimia will workout for excessive lengths of time, sometimes several hours at a time, and often will workout several times in a day. They will almost never take days off to recover from their exercise routine.

5. People with exercise bulimia often rationalize their excessive workouts as being a product of being an elite athlete.

6. People with exercise bulimia will often measure self esteem only in terms of exercise performance.

7. People with exercise bulimia rarely seem to be able to find satisfaction in their achievements.

8. People with exercise bulimia will often try to make up for missed exercise when it does happen by increasing and even doubling the length of their workout routine.

9. People with exercise bulimia may lose friends and alienate family members due to their obsession with exercise.

10. People with exercise bulimia are often in denial and have a difficult time seeing their own behavior as a problem, despite the health problems and social consequences of their obsessive need to exercise.

Exercise bulemics can benefit from professional help

Because exercise bulimia is a food related obsessive disorder it needs to be classified as an eating disorder. While the method of purging calories differs significantly from bulimic's who rely on vomiting and laxatives to purge, the underlying obsession with ridding the body of fat producing calories is still the same. Exercise bulimia represents a psychological obsession around food and the purging of calories.

It is therefore recommended that any person with exercise bulimia should get help from a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders or from an eating disorder clinic. Psychologists who specialize in eating disorders and eating disorder clinics have expertise in not only helping individual's learn to better manage there eating habits and obsessions, they also have experience helping sufferers work through the underlying issues that played a part in the development of the disorder.

Many of us may know someone who shows signs of suffering from exercise bulimia and often recognize the problem because of its obsessive pattern. However, we often don’t realize the long term health and psychological damage that can occur if this particular eating disorder goes untreated. If you know someone who likely has exercise bulimia try to let them know in a genuine and caring way that they may have a serious problem and do what you can to encourage them to seek help from a medical professional, mental health professional, or an eating disorder clinic.


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    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York


      I am so glad you wrote this article. So many people are unaware of this kind of disorder, including those suffering from it. Exercise is generally viewed as a healthy activity, but it can become an unrealistic and unhealthy obsession. I would also like to add that some bulimics will engage in both the binging/purging aspect as well as obsessive exercise. I can speak from personal experience that it is unbelievable the amount of anxiety when a bulimic cannot follow through with whatever form of ridding calories they use. Sometimes there are unexpected interruptions that were not anticipated while consuming calories and then there is severe guilt for the consumption of those calories if they are unable to get rid of them. Great hub, voted up and interesting!

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      I have known people with this condition and it is really very sad. Your hub has given excellent information on exercise bulimia. For a long while, I thought this was a teen-age problem, but now I know it also affects other ages as well. Good hub and rating up!

    • tedcampbell2792 profile image

      tedcampbell2792 6 years ago from NY

      I see it all the time at the gym. Sad.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      It can be quite tragic, often because the person has a huge blind spot and really doesn't realize how bad it has gotten. Early on they were probably given a lot of positive reinforcement by others for being so dedicated to fitness and a healthy lifestyle but somewhere along the way it turns from passion into obsession and like many other things, whether its beanie babies or video games, it can wreak havoc on ones ability to function normally. In this case it's made even worse by the fact it is also causing physical damage to the person.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 6 years ago

      Very interesting hub. I know someone with this disorder and it is awful to witness.