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The connection between compulsive exercise and eating disorders

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The connection between compulsive exercise and eating disorders isn't always a clear one.

Exercise bulimia, for example, is classified as an entirely different condition than bulimia, anorexia or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). But many people with eating disorders show symptoms of more than one type of condition, making treatment a complex process.

A 1995 study found that 40 percent of anorexia patients had engaged in compulsive exercise behaviors, and current research suggests the trend is growing.

When exercise becomes dangerous

Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program in Sacramento, says that it's important to look at the intention behind exercise, as people with eating disorders may approach the behavior much differently than others.

"If there is a sense of urgency or agitation when individuals can't engage in the exercise behavior, there is likely an issue," Lombardi said. "It's also important to consider exercise in the larger context of an individual's eating and body image history."

Compensation or recovery?

Lombardi notes that it can be difficult to spot unhealthy exercise behaviors because exercise is part of a healthy recovery program for those with eating disorders. But others use it as a compensatory tactic to make up for binge eating - or eating at all.

The damage from this type of obsessive behavior can be far-reaching. A statement from the Eating Recovery Center explains:

What these individuals do not realize, is that the frequency and volume of their exercise has taken the place of other eating disordered behaviors as an anxiety management tool and poses significant health complications, including joint injuries, stress fractures, muscle tears, tendonitis, fatigue and dehydration.

The important thing to realize, says Lombardi, is that treatment is available, even if the person is in recovery or being treated for another eating disorder.

A complementary video called Running on Empty: Exercise Compulsion and Eating Disorders provides more information about the current research of addictive behavior as it relates to eating disorders and exercising.

Source: Eating Recovery Center