To Exercise or Not to Exercise?by Mark Warren, M.D.
Obsessive exercise is one of the most common symptoms of an eating disorder. For people across the eating disorder spectrum—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders—obsessive exercise is a very common behavior and may also feel compulsive, or like it has to be done. It can also be a widespread compensatory mechanism for those who feel they have eaten too much.
“Obsessive exercise” refers to exercise that goes beyond that which is rational or reasonable for health. “Compulsive exercise” refers to exercise that feels necessary, whether the person wants to do it or not. Exercise done obsessively, compulsively, or both may displace other important activities in life, cause pain, or lead to negative outcomes for the person engaging in it.
“Compensatory exercise” refers to exercise that is done to make up for a binge eating episode or any other kind of eating that someone with an eating disorder feels violates the “rules” of their disorder.
The issue is that exercise, as we well know, is a normalized behavior generally believed to be necessary for optimal health. However, for people with an eating disorder, it presents clear and present health risks. That’s why it’s important to understand when exercise is an eating disorder behavior and when it is not. Note: Someone with an eating disorder may not have the cognitive awareness to know when it’s a dangerous behavior.
There are many health risks associated with exercise when someone has an eating disorder. Exercise can lead to stress fractures and heart dysfunction when a person is underweight. Exercise can also cause extraordinary psychological distress because the person struggling with an eating disorder may feel like the exercise they’re doing is “never enough.”
Exercise may also play a role in maintaining an eating disorder. For someone who is struggling, compulsive exercise is often the behavior that clients are most resistant to giving up when trying to move into recovery. Often people who do not intend for exercise to be a barrier to recovery will, nevertheless, begin to fall back into eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. For this reason, exercise is a very common avenue to relapse. Additionally, in cases for which weight restoration is a goal for a client, exercise increases the calories a person needs to eat in a day, making that goal more difficult to achieve.
For all of these reasons, we often recommend temporarily limiting or even stopping exercise. Although exercise is not typically part of initial eating disorder treatment, it can be reintroduced over time, as appropriate. However, it is imperative that exercise is re-introduced in a slow, balanced manner. It’s not that someone with an eating disorder can never exercise again, but they likely need to maintain a sense of caution because of the potential risks of relapse. Additionally, since the goal of exercise is to move the body joyfully and healthfully, reclaiming exercise with a focus on incorporating enjoyable movement can set a foundation for a new relationship with movement.