In most cases, exercise is viewed as a positive habit. Regular exercise leads to better health, improved mood and higher levels of physical fitness. Unfortunately, in some cases, excessive exercise can become a problematic and even dangerous behavior. Some people who exercise too frequently may even be diagnosed with “exercise addiction.” Although exercise addiction may occur on its own, it often develops in combination with an eating disorder or as part of an eating disorder. In such cases, the behavior may be referred to as “anorexia athletica” or “exercise bulimia.”
What Is Exercise Addiction?
Not everyone who spends a lot of time exercising suffers from exercise addiction. For example, someone who is training for a marathon is not necessarily addicted to running if he or she is working toward the goal in a safe, healthy way. According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, an individual’s behavior may be considered compulsive exercise if it meets a few specific criteria related to tolerance, withdrawal, lack of control, intention effects, time, reduction in other activities and continuance.
People with a true exercise addiction build a tolerance to exercise over time and must gradually increase the amount of their physical activity in order to feel the same effect. They also experience withdrawal when they are unable to exercise, and they have a lack of control over their engagement in exercise. These individuals often spend more time on exercise than they intend to, and they may also reduce their engagement in other activities to compensate. Finally, people with a fitness addiction will continue to exercise even when it causes interpersonal, physical or psychological problems.
Anorexia Athletica and Exercise Bulimia
In many cases, an exercise obsession is related to becoming more fit. However, in other cases, it is focused on weight loss or weight maintenance. Anorexia athletica occurs when an individual engages in exercise in hopes of losing weight. This condition, which may also be called “exercise anorexia,” may be coupled with fasting, food restriction and other disordered eating behaviors. Exercise anorexia puts an individual at risk of a variety of physical and psychological complications, some of which may be fatal.
Exercise bulimia is a form of excessive exercise aimed at burning calories that have been recently consumed. It is similar to other types of purging, such as induced vomiting or laxative abuse. This type of over-exercising disorder usually occurs as a component of bulimia nervosa. Sessions of hypergymnasia may follow episodes of binge eating.
Treatment for Exercise Addiction
When a person is addicted to working out, treatment is necessary to prevent serious complications. If this disorder occurs concurrently with an eating disorder, both conditions will require treatment at the same time.
Treatment for both exercise addiction and eating disorders needs to focus on the underlying factors that led to the development of these conditions, as well as the conditions themselves. For example, many people who are addicted to working out and have an eating disorder developed these problems because of stress, body image issues, mood disorders and/or other factors. The best treatment programs will work to identify these factors and deal with each one in order to give the client the best chance of recovering from both conditions.
Exercise addiction and eating disorders often have both a psychological and a physical component. For example, an individual who has been engaging in food restriction and is addicted to running may have physical problems, such as malnutrition and heart issues, as well as psychological concerns. Treatment programs should include therapies that target all of these issues.
Oliver-Pyatt Centers is a nationwide industry leader in the treatment of eating disorders, including those that involve exercise addiction. We offer both residential treatment and day treatment to meet the needs of different clients. Our facility offers the highest level of care outside of a hospital, and all of our treatment programs include a combination of both medical and psychiatric services. Please contact us today to learn more about the programs we offer.