Back to school also means back to sports. Countless students are participating in tennis, soccer, cross country running, gymnastics, and other sports. These student athletes and others who engage in recreational sports and exercise can be vulnerable to excessive training for all the right and wrong reasons. Parents, family members, coaches, teachers, athletic trainers, friends and health providers must be aware of potential for exercise abuse…as part of the “fitspiration” movement.
It takes only a cursory glance through social media to become aware of the “fitspiration” movement. This catchy term may accompany posts of workout videos, pictures depicting physical activity, or pictures of individuals showing off the muscular bodies they obtained through dedication to rigorous exercise regimens. In a sense, exercise and fitness have become trendy in our society, with more strenuous exercise routines being perceived as more impressive. Cars boast bumper stickers with numbers such as “13.1,” “26.2,” or even “50,” referring to the distances so proudly conquered by runners. When we hear a friend has decided to commit to a rigid training schedule to complete a marathon, we are often in awe of their self-control and motivation, wishing we were that dedicated. But can exercise be a bad thing? The answer is complicated. Exercise is one of the best things we can do for our health. I have heard physicians say that if all the benefits of exercise could be bottled up into a pill; pharmaceutical companies would be fighting for the chance to sell it. However, it can get complicated when one’s reasons for exercising stem from a potentially destructive place, rather than a pursuit of health.
Exercise bulimia is a term used to refer to the excessive use of exercise to burn calories or try to keep a low body weight. It is not a medical diagnosis in and of itself, but the notion of using exercise to make up for excessive calorie consumption or maintain an unhealthily low body weight can occur in both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Moreover, when excessive exercise occurs in combination with a significantly low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, a disturbed body image, undue influence of body shape on self-worth, or a failure to recognize the seriousness of the condition, an individual would meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa can cause serious complications in all body systems. Some examples include disrupted functioning of the heart, reduced lung capacity, hormonal imbalance, amenorrhea, (loss of the menstrual period in women), changes in brain structure, and in severe cases, difficulty with memory. The hormonal changes associated with amenorrhea, especially when coupled with extreme exercise, can lead to reduced bone density and can put women at high risk of stress fractures. Stress fractures are breaks in the bone that occur from overuse through large amounts of exercise rather than the traumatic bone breaks we typically think of where an obvious event results in a broken bone.
Because exercise bulimia can be a part of an eating disorder with potentially life-threatening consequences, it is important to be aware of the warning signs that someone’s exercise routine might be part of an eating disorder. Signs of exercise bulimia may include:
While the definition of exercise bulimia implies a voluntary engagement in excessive exercise for weight loss, my experience from being on female track and cross country teams in high school and college has shown me that anorexia nervosa does not always fit the mental picture we may have of someone who refuses to eat at all or even of exercise bulimia where an individual compulsively engages in excessive exercise. During cross country, the mileage we ran likely would have been considered excessive by the average person. Our team often trained 7 days a week with run-length ranging from 5-12 miles. Most runs were at least 7 miles, and some of my teammates had long runs in excess of 12 miles. The men on our team ran even farther. In hindsight, one of my teammates may have met the criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. Her weight was significantly below normal, she feared weight gain, did not eat sufficient calories to replenish what she burned on runs, and despite knowing she was thin, did not fully recognize the potential health consequences due to her low weight. However, it was not a clear cut problem. She was not an obvious candidate for an eating disorder because she was not pursuing the excessive exercise; she was simply following her coach’s training plan. If she did not exercise to the extent she did, the amount of food she ate would have been considered normal, so seeing her eating habits alone did not trigger any red flags. Finally, cross country runners are known for being lean, often even emaciated; it was a common side effect of the sport often not given a second thought. Thankfully, this runner never fell victim to the dangerous downward spiral that is sometimes seen in patients with anorexia nervosa. However, it is important to be aware of the unsuspecting ways in which an eating disorder can sometimes present.
Treatment of eating disorders typically involves a multi-pronged approach with nutritional counseling, psychotherapy, and general medical care playing a role. The nutritional counseling aims to help the patient restore a healthy diet to attain a healthy weight, the psychotherapy aims at getting to the root of the issues that may have contributed to the onset of the eating disorder, and general medical care may be necessary to manage any complications from the eating disorder depending on its seriousness. Educational programs about eating disorders and risk factors have also been shown to be successful in helping to prevent eating disorders.
It can sometimes be a fine line between a healthy passion for exercising and eating well and the start of an eating disorder. Especially in athletes where extreme exercise is part of the sport and putting in extra training is rewarded, it is valuable to be aware of the signs and symptoms of exercise bulimia to help prevent a loved one from crossing over that line. Though serious health consequences are possible in the setting of an eating disorder, treatment and recovery are very possible.
For More Information: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
GCSOM Guest Author: Mary Pelkowski, MD4 is a student in the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine MD Class of 2022. She grew up in Sayre, PA and graduated from Notre Dame High School. She received her undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.