Study Links Eating Disorders, Exercise Addiction

Study Links Eating Disorders, Exercise Addiction by Timberline Knolls Staff

A person runs on a treadmill.

A recently published study from the United Kingdom suggests that individuals who develop eating disorders may also have a significantly elevated risk of becoming addicted to exercise.

According to this study, which originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, the prevalence of exercise addiction among individuals who have an eating disorder is 3.7 times greater than it is among those who have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder.

This conclusion was based on a meta-analysis of nine separate research projects. The nine projects included data on 2,140 subjects from multiple nations, including the U.K. and the United States. This pool of subjects included 408 people who had been diagnosed with an eating disorder and 1,732 who had not.

“Our study shows that displaying signs of an eating disorder significantly increases the chance of an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and this can have negative consequences, including mental health issues and injury,” the study’s lead author, Mike Trott, said in a Jan. 28 news release that announced his team’s findings. Trott is a Ph.D. researcher at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

What Is Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction is not included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This means that this condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an official diagnosis with an established set of diagnostic criteria.

However, exercise addiction’s absence from the DSM-5 does not mean that the condition is ignored by professionals. Multiple studies, such as the one conducted by Mike Trott’s team at Anglia Ruskin University, have attempted to document the symptoms, causes, and effects of exercise addiction. Many clinicians and programs have developed treatment protocols to assist individuals whose lives have been impacted by exercise addiction.

As is the case with other forms of addiction or behavioral compulsions, exercise addiction is characterized by overpowering urges and an inability to moderate or control one’s actions, even after experiencing negative outcomes. People who develop exercise addiction may work out excessively, overexert themselves, fail to allow for proper rest periods, and otherwise act in a manner that puts their physical health and mental well-being at risk.

When people who struggle with exercise addiction are not able to work out, they may experience anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional distress.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has identified the following as among the many potential health consequences of compulsive exercise:

  • Altered resting heart rate
  • Diminished energy levels
  • Loss of bone density
  • Disrupted menstrual cycle
  • Pain in muscles, bones, and joints
  • Increased prevalence of stress fractures and other injuries
  • Increased frequency of upper respiratory infections and other illnesses

Excessive Exercise and Eating Disorders

Although exercise addiction is not included as an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, this reference manual does contain multiple references to unhealthy exercise-related behaviors in relation to eating disorders.

For example, the DSM-5 identifies excessive exercise as a compensatory behavior among individuals who have developed bulimia nervosa. In the aftermath of binge-eating episodes, people who have bulimia may exercise excessively in an attempt to prevent weight gain.

The DSM-5 also notes that some people who develop anorexia nervosa demonstrate excessive levels of physical activity prior to the onset of the restrictive eating behaviors that are symptomatic of anorexia.

Excessive exercising is also associated with body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health disorder that is characterized by a preoccupation with perceived flaws in one’s physical appearance. As the DSM-5 notes, body dysmorphic disorder can co-occur with eating disorders.

As is the case with exercise addiction, the excessive exercise-related behaviors that are associated with anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphic disorder are self-defeating actions that can harm a person’s physical health and contribute to the onset or exacerbation of mental health concerns.

Comprehensive Solutions

Anyone who struggles with an eating disorder needs effective care from a qualified provider. When an eating disorder is accompanied by a compulsion to exercise excessively, it is vital that the individual receives comprehensive treatment from a provider who can identify and address all the concerns that have been preventing them from living a healthier life.

In the press release that announced his team’s findings about eating disorders and exercise addiction, Mike Trott emphasized the importance of including an exercise component in eating disorder treatment.

“Health professionals working with people with eating disorders should consider monitoring exercise levels as a priority, as this group have been shown to suffer from serious medical conditions as a result of excessive exercise, such as fractures, increased rates of cardiovascular disease in younger patients, and increased overall mortality,” he said.