Exercise is awesome. It can do so many things beyond just promoting weight loss. But when it becomes a coping mechanism and a compulsion, it’s no longer healthy–it’s called exercise bulimia, a subset of the umbrella eating disorder which is characterized by purging and binging, bulimia nervosa. But how can you tell the difference? And how much exercise is too much?
“Beyond the normal love of fitness, exercise bulimics have a compulsion to exercise that forces them to put exercise above their work, social or family life, and before their overall health,” says award-winning author and wellness expert Dr. Carole Lieberman M.D.
Unfortunately, because exercise is considered to be healthy pretty much all the time by pretty much everyone, and because most individuals living with bulimia remain within the “normal” weight range for their height, exercise bulimia can be very difficult to diagnose–and even more difficult to see in friends, family members, and even ourselves. But there is a fine line between just working out a little too much, and engaging in bulimic behavior.
“Exercise bulimia is similar to other eating disorders in that both have an unrealistic and pathological obsession with correcting a body that is endlessly viewed as imperfect. It is different from other eating disorders in that the focus is on measuring their exercise achievements, rather than their calories,” Dr. Lieberman explains.
Often, but not always, exercise bulimia is accompanied by other disordered eating behavior, like a fixation on weight and weight loss, a preoccupation with calories and eating only healthy or “good” foods, purging in other ways (like laxatives or even vomiting), or binge-eating, though an exercise bulimic may never even actually binge. But even all of those may be kept a secret, or chalked up to training, a big weight loss goal, or just being a dedicated health nut.
Anyone who’s routinely worked out in a gym has probably seen someone who spends an exceptionally long amount of time on a single cardio machine, but does that mean the person is sick, or is she just trying to reach her goals the best way she knows how, with a lot of exercise?