Eating disorders and compulsive exercise are both most common among teenage girls, but no age or gender is exempt from the damaging consequences of these problems. On the face of it, the relationship between compulsive exercise and eating disorders may seem to be purely a weight issue-someone is overweight, or thinks they are, and goes overboard in the effort to fix it. However, the true issue is much more complex than that, and eating and exercise disorders often have similar underlying causes. For this reason, the two often go hand-in-hand and have similar negative health effects.
It is important to note that while exercise in and of itself is healthy, similar to moderate eating is healthy, going to an extreme in either direction can be life-threatening. I was a compulsive exerciser as a teenager, and caused muscle mass damage that took years to fix. The relationship between eating disorders and compulsive exercise is complex, but following are a few common issues that tend to manifest themselves in unhealthy habits of both eating and exercise. In most cases, the help of a qualified mental health professional may be required to help guide you through the real problems, and form a plan for coping with and correcting them.
Poor body image
Especially during times when your body image seems to be closely scrutinized, such as during the teen years or in the midst of an indifferent relationship, you may feel that your body comes up lacking. Maybe you don’t like your muscle tone, or think those soft bits are unbecoming, or imagine that you’re too skinny; whatever the reason, a huge portion of individuals-especially girls and women-find something to passionately dislike about their physical appearance.
If you perceive a flaw in yourself, the natural reaction is to try to fix the issue. The problem with perceived problems, however, is that they never go away. No matter what you do to try to eradicate those “flaws,” you will remain convinced that they’re there. This thinking gives rise to ever-increasing exercise loads and unhealthy eating habits.
You may see improvement when you start a radical exercise regimen — at first. As the unhealthy approach continues, your body will begin to lose healthy components such as muscle mass and good skin tone. In the compulsive exerciser or anyone with an eating disorder, the response is to enhance the unhealthy practices even more in an effort to correct the problem.
No matter how much you control your eating or exercise, your poor body image will not correct itself. A poor body image can strike anyone, regardless of how “flawless” their body may be in the perceptions of others.
If you dislike who you are, you are much less likely to take care of yourself. While it may manifest itself in dislike of the physical body, it also often appears as constant negative self-talk. You may detest yourself for every shortcoming, real or imagined. Every wrong decision, late project or time taken solely for your own benefit may seem like a reason to reprimand yourself. In many cases, this comes out in strenuous activity such as compulsively exercising in order to punish yourself, or it may mean denying yourself the food you enjoy or need.
Feelings of helplessness or loss of control
At some point in everyone’s life, events spin out of control. The automatic reaction is to regain control-and if you can’t control the events around you, then you may feel compelled to control yourself. By forcing the body beyond its natural limits, you might temporarily regain that feeling of control. Forcing yourself not to eat when your body is telling you that it needs to, or regurgitate food that it needs, is also an expression of attempting to regain control. In this way, the same underlying problem may manifest itself in compulsive exercise, eating disorders or both.
Finally, the most profound relationship between eating disorders and compulsive exercise is the negative effect both have on your overall health. Regardless of the underlying cause, both will degrade your muscle mass and have potentially serious consequences for all major organs. Either of these issues can eventually lead to death if left unchecked, and may have serious permanent long-term health consequences if allowed to persist. You can weaken your heart, starve your brain and lose density in your bones, among other things. If you or someone you love suffers from eating disorders or compulsive exercise, then it is important to be aware of these consequences and understand the need for professional help.