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Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders

Information about eating disorders and compulsive exercise also known as excessive exercise or obligatory exercise defined as being characterized by a significant amount of physical activity combined with a compulsive need to do the activity.

Compulsive exercise—also known as excessive exercise or obligatory exercise—is defined as being “characterized by a significant amount of physical activity combined with a compulsive need to do the activity.” (Bewell-Weiss & Carter, 2010) Compulsive exercise poses significant health complications, including joint injuries, stress fractures, muscle tears, tendonitis, fatigue and dehydration.

The connection between excessive exercise and eating disorders generally stems from food-, body- or weight-related issues that drive the excessive physical activity. In fact, a study by Brewerton found that nearly 40 percent of patients with Anorexia Nervosa engaged in compulsive exercise behaviors. (Brewerton et al, 1995)

Some individuals abuse exercise as a compensatory behavior following a bingeing session or to give themselves “permission” to eat. Others begin over-exercising behaviors during eating disorder recovery, not realizing that the frequency and volume of their exercise is not “healthy” and has taken the place of other eating disordered behaviors as anxiety management tool.

Common warning signs of compulsive exercise behaviors include:

  • Exercising excessively “just because” (as opposed to intentional exercise in preparation for a competition)
  • Refusal to miss a workout, regardless of weather or injury
  • Exercise takes precedence over all other activities, including work, school and spending time with friends and family
  • Heightened anxiety and/or agitation if unable to engage in exercise
  • Elevated rigidity and perfectionism with regard to exercise behaviors

To learn more about compulsive exercise and eating disorders, visit the Eating Disorders Information Gateway, a tool offered by Eating Recovery Center of San Antonio partner program Eating Recovery Center. This keyword-searchable database organizes all available content related to eating disorders and compulsive exercise.

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