Excessive Exercising: Is it About Fitness or a Compulsion?

Whenever I am in my gym, I see a skinny but well-muscled woman working out. She is there, already dripping with sweat, when I arrive, and she is there when I leave. My workout schedule is somewhat erratic, but regardless of when I arrive, she is there.

I suspect she is suffering from exercise bulimia, a disorder characterized by compulsive exercising to burn calories. Unlike bulimia, an eating disorder in which large quantities of food are consumed and then quickly removed from the body by vomiting or excessive laxative use, someone with exercise bulimia may be consuming only normal amounts of food. Normal, that is, to most of us. In a desire to attain a very low weight and keep it off, the exercise bulimic tracks every calorie consumed and makes sure that the exercise burns off enough calories so no (gasp!) weight is gained. If in a moment of weakness, a small bag of potato chips or a kiddie size ice cream cone is consumed, exercise to get rid of those calories begins as soon as possible.  And if for some reason it is impossible to exercise—for example, a cyclone has just destroyed the individual’s house—an overwhelming feeling of despair, agitation, and helplessness is experienced. These feelings may be similar to those experienced by someone who has consumed an enormous amount of food, and then is unable to get rid of it by vomiting.

It is difficult to distinguish a compulsive need to exercise, a need that may take priority over other activities, from the desire to excel in a competitive sports event. Someone who trains for a triathlon by swimming, biking and running long distances, can look as if he has exercise bulimia because the pressure to do well in these three activities requires hours and hours of physical activity. But there are two critical differences: the intense workouts required for a competitive event come to an end when the event is over, and the exercise is not coupled with the goal to work off calories. Indeed, the individual in training often increases significantly his or her calorie intake in order to replace the calories used in exercise and also to prevent muscle wasting.

Although weight loss, stamina, muscle strength, and overall fitness may increase because of the incessant exercising, the health risks of compulsively exercising eventually outweigh the benefits. When women lose too much body fat, they stop menstruating and become vulnerable to significant bone loss. Continuous fatigue, and injury to tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones (e.g. tendinitis and stress fractures) may result at any age; these injuries and fatigue rarely stop the exercise until the injury becomes too severe to continue.

Like the purging that occurs after the excessive eating of bulimia, excessive exercise is used to prevent calories from turning into fat and weight gain. To the person with this eating/exercise disorder, it is as if every item of food comes with a label that reads, ”Must exercise strenuously to use up calories in this food!” and then the food label lists the number of minutes or hours of exercise that have to be performed.

”You just ate a doughnut? Run on the treadmill at a high pace for 45 minutes!”

What makes this type of exercise “purging so destructive to health is that every morsel of food is regarded as an enemy of low weight.  It doesn’t matter if the food is healthy and required for nourishment or eaten for pleasure; its calories must not remain stored in the body.

Ironically and sadly, excessive exercise can increase the appetite and cause an inevitable need to eat more. Athletes in training consume much more food than when they are not preparing for a competitive event. So the exercise bulimic who has spent three hours in the gym may go home and eat a big meal because he is really hungry. And then he feels compelled to go back to the gym to work off the calories.

Breaking the cycle of exercising compulsively to get rid of the calories just consumed is difficult. There is the problem of the compulsion itself, a behavioral state of mind that is not easy to change. There is the guilt and anxiety that must be dealt with if exercise is prevented, and also the anxiety and depression that might drive overeating itself. And underlying all this is the uncertainty and bewilderment over what constitutes appropriate food intake. How does one convince an exercise bulimic that the body needs a certain amount of calories to function; that the body demands a variety of nutrients for basic physiological functions; and that the brain needs glucose for energy and other nutrients like amino acids in order to produce the cellular connections that allow it to communicate?

Might the exercise bulimic be helped if he or she stopped eating real food? If every morsel of food announces to the exercise bulimic how much exercise has to be done to remove unwanted calories from the body, why not switch to a food stuff that supposedly has the perfect number of calories for the exerciser’s body?  One possibility is a synthetic food called Soylent that was engineered to meet the needs of people such as programmers who don’t want to waste time eating real food. Rob Rhinehart developed Soylent, a liquid meal replacement, and it provides all the nutrients needed to meet daily caloric and nutritional needs.  Soylent is supposedly palatable, but not so wonderful in its taste and texture, so that anyone would be tempted to binge on it.

If the exercise bulimic is convinced that the food being consumed is in balance with the body’s caloric needs, the compulsion to exercise may diminish. If not, this will be indicating that the exercise is not really based on caloric intake, but instead a compulsive disorder played out in the gym.

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