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How exercise bulimia impacts the body

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What is exercise bulimia? It is similar to bulimia nervosa (BN), but, instead of purging to rid the body of ingested food, the individual overexercises to burn calories. (1) Exercise bulimia is more than overexercise. Those with the condition often have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors around exercising to lose weight. Their desire to exercise can make it challenging to participate in other parts of their lives.

Last updated on 
October 28, 2022
In this article

Signs of exercise bulimia

Since many doctors encourage exercise to stay healthy, it can be challenging to identify exercise bulimia. People with exercise bulimia tend to obsess about working out. If they miss a workout, they may grow anxious or angry. They may also act defensively if an individual suggests they're working out too much or over-exerting their body. 

They also tend to focus on physical activity to lose weight and pay close attention to how many calories they burn. After a workout, they might have a habit of weighing themselves, measuring their body, or comparing themselves to others.

How exercise bulimia impacts the body 

While moderate physical activity can improve strength, mobility, and flexibility, overexercising can negatively affect the body. A vital aspect of working out is rest. Resting allows the body to recover and restore energy. People with exercise bulimia tend to work out every day for extended periods, giving themselves no time to rest.

Overexercising without recovery puts stress on bones, joints, and cartilage. Too much pressure on certain parts of the body can lead to fractures and chronic joint pain. It can also cause osteoarthritis, the wearing down of cartilage surrounding the joints. The cartilage breaks down from overuse, allowing the bone to grind against each other, causing joint pain and swelling. (2) 

Overexercising can also strain or tear tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Extreme overexertion can result in a very serious, potentially deadly, condition called rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis occurs when muscle tissue breaks down and releases proteins in the blood. This can result in heart and kidney damage, permanent disability, and even death. Symptoms include fatigue, muscle aches and weakness, and dark urine. (3) 

Not incorporating enough rest can also lead to fatigue and irritability. 

Some research also finds that too much physical activity can weaken the immune system. (4) When an individual engages in high-intensity workouts, the body produces hormones that temporarily lower immunity. When strenuous exercise is continuous, the body's immune system stays at a weakened state. This puts the individual at a higher risk for infection, most commonly a respiratory infection. 

Women with exercise bulimia may also experience amenorrhea or the absence of periods. (5) Excessive physical activity causes weight loss. When the body does not have enough body fat, it can disrupt a woman's period. Too much stress can also cause periods to stop completely. Amenorrhea can also cause hair loss, headaches, vision changes, acne, and pelvic pain.

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Recovery for exercise bulimia 

Like many eating disorders, a significant part of treating exercise bulimia is identifying the underlying cause for the compulsion and desire to lose weight. Treatment options generally include therapy to help the individual overcome negative feelings and build new relationships with exercise and eating. Someone with exercise bulimia may also receive treatment for complications related to their eating disorder, especially if they've developed a chronic condition, such as arthritis.

For those ready to start their healing journey, the team at Within Health offers a revolutionary way for individuals with exercise bulimia to receive clinically superior care at home. The experts at Within understand the complexity of eating disorders and provide evidence-based treatment to clients to help people cope with challenges around food and the body and also explore the interpersonal concerns underlying the eating disorder. 

The individualized programs Within Help offers use the latest technology to provide real-time interactive experiences accessible to everyone, no matter their shape, size, ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, or background. Contact our admissions team today to learn more about the Within Health approach to helping individuals heal from exercise bulimia.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Healthline Editorial Team. (2017, July 26). Exercise bulimia: Symptoms, treatments, and more. Healthline. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-bulimia-symptoms-treatments-and-more
  2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, September 15). Arthritis. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350772
  3. Torres, P.A., Helmstetter, J.A., Kaye, A.M., Kaye, A.D. (2015). Rhabdomyolysis: Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Treatment. The Ochsner Journal, 15(1): 58-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365849/ 
  4. Nieman, D. C., & Wentz, L. M. (2019). The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 8(3), 201–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
  5. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, February 18). Amenorrhea. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 25, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/amenorrhea/symptoms-causes/syc-20369299

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