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The sunny warm weather is conducive to outdoor sports and activities. Countless adults and more especially students out of school for the summer 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/Anorexia Nervosa

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.

Warning Signs

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:

Not Clear Cut

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.

GCSOM Guest Author: Mary Pelkowski, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine MD Class of 2022.

For More Information:

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.     

Keep moving, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and live long and well!

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!”  

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

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.

For all of Dr. Paul's articles, check out our exercise forum!

A local high school teacher came to my office with weakness and numbness on one side of her face. This well-groomed, attractive middle-aged woman was unable to smile, frown, pout, speak, or eat with facial symmetry. She suffered from a cold, on and off, for about two months. It was not a bad cold, but it would not go away. One day in early summer, while engaged in bird watching, one of her favorite pastimes, she noticed that she could not look through her binoculars. She noticed that her eye would not open and close at will. The next day she woke with ear pain, flaccid muscles on one side of her face, and an inability to close her eye. She had difficulty speaking with clarity due to weak mouth muscles and feared she had a stroke.

She immediately saw her family physician who determined that she had shingles in her ear and developed Bell’s palsy. She was prescribed a steroid anti-inflammatory (Prednisone), antiviral medicine (Acyclovir), and a topical cream (Zovirax). Once she got over the initial fear and shock, she was grateful that her problem of facial weakness was not due to a more serious problem, such as a stroke or brain tumor. She began physical therapy and improved slowly. Her story, along with many other patients, reminded me of the need to raise awareness about cause, diagnosis, symptoms, complications and treatment of Bell’s palsy.     

Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve paralysis, occurs when the nerve that is responsible for the movement and sensation of the muscle and skin of the face becomes damaged. The end result of this damage is paralysis of the muscles and numbness of the skin on one side of the face. Typically, the first sign of this disorder is the inability to close one eye or smile on one side of the face. While this problem can occur in any age group, it is rarely seen in people less than 15 or more than 60 years of age. The good news is that most people show signs of improvement within 3-4 weeks and have complete recovery in 4-6 months. The bad news is that reoccurrence can occur on the other side of the face in approximately 10 percent of those affected.


Bell’s palsy is caused by a viral infection. The most common virus is the herpes simplex virus, the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. Other viruses that can cause Bell’s palsy are herpes zoster virus that causes chicken pox and shingles and Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, and cytomegalovirus. When one of these viruses causes inflammation to the facial nerve, it becomes swollen and irritated in the narrow tunnel of bone by the ear. As pressure on the facial nerve increases, damage progresses to the point that the muscles and skin of the face are unable to receive messages from the nerve, leading to paralysis, numbness and other symptoms.


The hallmark symptom of Bell’s palsy is sudden onset of facial muscle weakness and numbness on one side of the face. As a result, it is difficult to close the eye and smile on the weak side. Other symptoms on the affected side can include: the inability to make facial expressions, speak clearly (especially vowel sounds), diminished sense of taste, pain in the area of the jaw or ear, sensitivity of sound, headaches, and changes in production of tears and saliva.


While Bell’s palsy can occur in anyone, it is more common among those who are: pregnant, (especially during the third trimester or first week after birth), diabetic, or suffering from a cold or flu. Also, some research suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to this problem.


In mild cases of Bell’s palsy, symptoms are completely resolved within 4-6 weeks. As mentioned before, most cases resolve in 4-6 months. However, recovery for those with complete paralysis may vary. For example, permanent facial weakness, facial muscle twitching, and visual problems due to the inability to close the eye, can occur.


Contact you primary care physician immediately, because these symptoms may be associated with a more serious medical condition such as a stroke. Remember, most people with Bell’s palsy make a complete recovery, but early intervention can expedite the process. In severe cases, a neurologist may be consulted. Two commonly used medications are corticosteroids and antiviral drugs. Corticosteroids such as prednisone are strong anti-inflammatory drugs used to reduce the swelling and inflammation on the facial nerve. Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir are used to stop the viral infection that may have caused the inflammation. Studies show that these drugs, when used in combination, are most effective when administered in the first 3 days of the appearance of symptoms.

Physical therapy can also assist in the restoration of facial muscle recovery. Ultrasound with anti-inflammatory drugs, electric stimulation, massage and exercise are commonly performed. While the use of electric stimulation has limited support in the literature, a home exercise program that concentrates on facial muscles, is an essential part of the therapy program. Some simple exercises performed in front of a mirror are: raise eyebrows, bring eyebrows together, open/close eye, fill cheeks with air, suck in cheeks, smile, frown, whistle, say vowels.

Surgery, to relieve pressure on the nerve by removing bone, is rarely performed. Plastic surgery, to improve the appearance of the face, may be an option in cases with permanent paralysis.    

Sources: Mayo Clinic; WebMD

NEXT WEEK! Read “Health & Exercise Forum” – Every Monday.  This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor  in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at GCSOM.

For all Dr. Paul's articles, visit our exercise forum!