Exercise Bulimia: When the Gym Rat Goes Too Far

Amy Kuras

There's liking to work out, and then there's having to work out. One's a good thing, while the other can be very bad indeed.

For most of us, the problem is finding enough motivation to work out regularly. But for some people, their rigorous workout schedule crosses the line into compulsion. They obsessively exercise off every calorie they consume in a desperate struggle to keep their weight under control, a condition called "exercise bulimia."

One doctor that treats people with eating disorders said she's seen an increase in people with exercise bulimia in recent years, as attention has shifted toward fitness and somewhat away from diet as a badge of good health. With everyone so concerned about obesity, people who work out compulsively are often praised for the very thing which is hurting them.

How do you know if you've crossed the line? It's pretty simple, really. If you can miss a workout because you're sick, injured, or you have something else going on that takes priority, you're fine. If you get extremely anxious about missing a workout and the rest of your life gets scheduled around your exercise time, you're in trouble.

The tough thing is, exercise bulimia can be difficult to detect even to the person's closest friends, family, or coaches. They'll keep working out through even very serious injuries. I'm not talking maybe switching to the bike if you pulled a calf muscle in yoga and walking hurts too much, I'm talking miles-long runs on a broken ankle.

For an exercise bulimic, their disorder steals any joy they may once have felt from physical activity. No feeling weightless during a great run, no relishing the stretch and contraction of their muscles, just a grim accounting of calories in and calories out.

Sounds like no way to live, doesn't it? But the good news is that exercise bulimia can be treated successfully, allowing bulimics to eat and exercise normally ... and maybe even enjoy it.


Image via lululemon athletica/Flickr

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