Many people who suffer from eating disorders also show signs of exercise addiction, according to new research. The study, led by Mike Trott of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), was published this month in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia, and Obesity.
Trott and his team are the first to measure rates of exercise addiction in groups of people with and without the characteristics of an eating disorder. The study included data from 2,140 participants across nine different studies, including from the US, UK, Italy, and Australia.
Researchers found that participants who displayed characteristics of an eating disorder are 3.7 times more likely to suffer from exercise addiction than those who showed no signs of an eating disorder.
Lead author of the study, Trott, said, “It is known that those with eating disorders are more likely to display addictive personality and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. We are also aware that having an unhealthy relationship with food often means an increased amount of exercising, but this is the first time that a risk factor has been calculated.
“It is not uncommon to want to improve our lifestyles by eating healthier and doing more exercise, particularly at the start of the year. However, it is important to moderate this behavior and not fall victim to ‘crash diets’ or anything that eliminates certain foods entirely, as these can easily lead to eating disorders.
“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.
“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.”
Exercise addiction is something that impacts thousands of people and can be conceptualized like other processes and substance addictions. Compulsive exercisers often find no satisfaction in their athletic achievements, and they almost never do it for fun.
Many experts believe that exercise may be no more than another way to purge. As with all other disordered eating behaviors, the apparent goal is to burn calories and lose weight, but ultimately the exercise provides a temporary sensation of control, power, and self-respect.