Exercise addiction and eating disorders

Over exercising is a common “purging” behaviour associated with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Purging means to get rid of something: in this instance the individual will excessively partake in exercise in an attempt to get rid of any calories they have consumed. I found that during my treatment, the focus around exercising wasn’t as apparent as other behaviours such as restricting. As exercise was my biggest behaviour, I found this very hard to overcome, especially due to it not being discussed as frequently. I was doing a lot of exercise in secret, including compulsive walking, and lied about how much I was partaking. Here is my story and advice on what you can do if you struggle with moderating exercise, whether you have an eating disorder or not.

Let’s start from the beginning

I particularly struggled with exercise addiction which sourced as my main behaviour and it was in fact the exercise that started everything whilst restriction of food quickly followed. I was a dancer and went to dance college at eighteen which was when my eating disorder came into light. On top of that, I was a huge gym fanatic with aspirations to begin competing as a bikini fitness model. Also, I have always been a keen runner. Both my parents are long distance runners and it was an activity we all enjoyed together. During my third year of university I took part in two half marathons. My exercise regime was dancing all day as well as using the gym up to twice a day whilst simultaneously running in the evenings to train for my half marathons. Looking back, I don’t know how on earth I did it all whilst eating as little as I did. This shows how strong the mindset is during anorexia; physical tiredness is completely ignored. This is very dangerous as it puts immense strain on the body and can be very damaging to the bones if you are exercising to such an extent without nourishing your body correctly. This is why athletes need to eat a lot to maintain their strength.


During the peak of my exercise addiction I experienced burnout. This wasn’t just being tired; this was full blown burnout which left me bed bound for a week. I became weak and pale and had flu like symptoms. The signs that I should rest were apparent long before but I didn’t listen to my body. Eventually, I couldn’t move out of bed because I had no energy. My limbs were protesting against me which was a sign I needed to slow down. Naturally, I became very depressed in this week as I couldn’t exercise; I was agitated and snappy. I think this was the point when restricting food became an increasing issue as I didn’t want to eat in compensation for not exercising. I lost weight that week because I lost muscle tone and wasn’t fuelling my body. I now know that if you are ill you need to eat in order for your body to recover which is why my therapists always reiterate that being ill is no excuse to not eat. Your body is fighting and using up more energy than usual to get you fit and healthy. That energy needs fuel, and where does fuel come from? FOOD!

Why gyms are bad for you

Okay, so gyms aren’t “bad” for you; although, it is something that you should be aware of when recovering from or, have a history of an eating disorder. My issue with the gym is that there is no cut off point which means you could be in there for hours and hours. There is no accountability or boundaries to ensure moderation and it could easily end up out of your control.

I was on an exercise ban whilst I was still gaining weight but as soon as I was allowed to exercise again I had no idea about moderation. I went to the gym everyday and would obsess over booking as many classes as I could. I had realised that my exercise habits were no different from before and I was aware that it was a slippery slope. As soon as I started back at the gym I was faced with other people as keen as I was to lose weight or improve their body’s aesthetic. I’d compare myself to other women and be so hard on myself which did nothing but make me feel terrible. The reality is everyone probably didn’t care about my body or what I was thinking as they were probably tackling their own internal critics and making their own comparisons. All I could focus on were “her legs, her biceps, her bum, her tiny waist, her beautiful non sweaty hair.” I also felt I was competing with others’ workouts and was constantly trying to do more than the person next to me. “I won’t stop running until they stop” or, “I need to go faster than them.” My inner voice was so punishing and cruel – whatever I did or however I looked wasn’t good enough.

We are all susceptible to comparing ourselves to one another which can have significant effects on our self esteem which may be damaging to our mental health. It’s important to ask ourselves: Am I going to the gym to improve my physique purely for aesthetic reasons? Do I feel guilty for missing a planned gym session? Am I spending more time in the gym rather than spending time with my friends or family? Do I take time to properly rest if I am overworked or injured?

It might be a good idea to ask yourself these kind of questions as it may indicate you are becoming compulsive or obsessive? There is nothing wrong with going to the gym but it is a good idea to be mindful and figure out what your intentions of going are.

What’s the point?

Those who are overweight to the point where it is impacting on their health (FYI: you can be overweight and healthy) or those who hold any other relevant medical condition, the gym would be necessary. Often this would be advised or funded for by their GP. Likewise, if a person does not suffer from any compulsions or obsessions to exercise then I have no rights to say they shouldn’t be in the gym so long as they are moderating their gym time.

The purpose of going to a gym when you are a perfectly healthy person is typically to modify our bodies. If we are not in there to improve our cardiovascular health when it is perfectly fine or strengthen and increase the mobility in our joints when they are fit and strong then we are in the gym to “tone up,” “bulk” or “lose a few pounds.” Arguably, these are all efforts to change or modify our bodies which is the effects of diet culture. We need to learn that we are all valuable and our differences make us unique. Having an eating disorder, body image issues, an exercise addiction or any seemingly innocent compulsions to exercise will only be exaggerated if you are in an environment which sets the example of modifying how we look. My personal belief is that gyms are a breeding ground for low self esteem and morphed ideas of healthy physique.

Be a team player

Just because someone suffers from an eating disorder, or any other compulsive and obsessive attitudes towards exercise, doesn’t mean they can’t exercise altogether. Exercise is actually really good for your mental health and releases lots of endorphins. It’s about choosing the right form of exercise for you and learning how to partake in it moderately.

I’ve learnt how to moderate exercise by partaking in team sports. I play football two to three times a week and nothing more. I set these boundaries so that I can’t overdo it. When training stops, I stop. It’s contained and I’m accountable and most of all, I actually enjoy it! Playing a team sport such as football gives exercise a purpose. It becomes so much more than burning calories. It becomes a game with an actual point like scoring goals or winning a league, rather than lifting heavier weights to get bigger biceps. It becomes fun, it’s exciting and different each time you train. It becomes a place where you belong and are working as a team. The work you put in doesn’t only benefit yourself but it benefits your teammates. The best thing about starting football is that it’s given me a whole new set of friends and a social life. Might I add, we all go to the pub after training and are regulars at the pub quiz. Before, I had no social life or my own set of friends who I saw regularly. I felt lost after leaving university because I was so consumed by my eating disorder and lost touch with many of my close friends. I now have a group of really close friends and I never thought I’d meet them through exercising since I was always so engrossed in my personal workouts and afraid that others would hold me back from burning the most calories. The amazing thing is, when I play football I do not care about my body or burning calories. I couldn’t care less about how I look and football kit is a damn sight more comfortable than gym pants. It never feels competitive regarding body image because we are all there because we love the game and we like to have a laugh, not because we want to “improve” our bodies.


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