Eating Recovery Center Addresses Connection Between Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders by straightlinepr


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Molly Koch
Communications Strategy Group
(303) 433-7020

       Eating Recovery Center Addresses Connection Between
             Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders
     Eating disorders treatment center identifies common warning signs and reveals
                 challenges to identifying compulsive exercise behaviors

Denver, Colo, March 20, 2013 – Professionals specializing in the treatment of men, women
and children with eating disorders are observing a growing trend among their patients, who
are increasingly engaging in compulsive exercise. According to Eating Recovery Center, an
international center providing comprehensive treatment for eating disorders, the connection
between excessive exercise and eating disorders generally stems from food-, body- or
weight-related issues that drive the excessive physical activity. In fact, a study by
Brewerton found that nearly 40 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa engaged in
compulsive exercise behaviors.

“Compulsive exercise is obligatory in nature, and it doesn’t have to be a certain type of
exercise or be performed for a minimum duration,” explains Jennifer Lombardi, MFT,
executive director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program, a partner program of
Eating Recovery Center. “When evaluating if exercise is compulsive in nature, it’s important
to look at the intention behind the movement, if there is a sense of urgency or agitation
when individuals can’t engage in the exercise behavior, there is likely an issue. It’s also
important to consider exercise in the larger context of an individual’s eating and body image
history; exercise is one of those behaviors that means something different to people
struggling with eating disorders due to their temperament and brain chemistry.”

Lombardi and the eating disorders experts at Eating Recovery Center explain that
individuals engaging in compulsive exercise generally fall into one of two categories: those
exhibiting significant exercise compulsion as part of their eating disorder; or individuals that
did not initially exhibit excessive exercise behaviors, but began to do so as their eating
disorders improved.

In other words, some eating disordered individuals abuse exercise as a compensatory
behavior following a bingeing session or to give themselves “permission” to eat. Others may
begin to engage in excessive exercise as what they believe to be a “healthy” part of eating
disorders recovery. What these individuals do not realize, is that the frequency and volume
of their exercise has taken the place of other eating disordered behaviors as an anxiety
management tool and poses significant health complications, including joint injuries, stress
fractures, muscle tears, tendonitis, fatigue and dehydration.

Eating Recovery Center encourages families, friends and healthcare professionals
to be mindful of five common warning signs of compulsive exercise behaviors,

   1. Exercising excessively “just because” as opposed to intentional exercise in
      preparation for a competition.

   2. Refusing to miss a workout, regardless of weather or injury.

   3. Exercising takes precedence over all other activities, including work, school and
      spending time with friends and family.

   4. Experiencing a heightened level of anxiety if unable to engage in exercise.

   5. Displaying an elevated rigidity and perfectionism with regard to exercise behaviors.

However, it is important to note that popular cultural narratives around exercise in the
United States can pose significant challenges to identifying compulsive exercise—alone or
occurring alongside an eating disorder.

   •   Exercise is healthy. There has been a major cultural shift around the notion that
       exercise helps us, not only in supporting general health and maintenance of a
       healthy weight during an obesity “epidemic,” but also as a tool to manage anxiety
       and stave off depression. This idea, and myriad variations of encouraged and
       acceptable frequencies of exercise (30 minutes each day; five days a week; etc.) can
       challenge the identification of dangerous patterns and/or normalize compulsivity,
       even during assessment by medical professionals.

   •   I am a competitive athlete. Overreaching is a common method of competitive
       athletes, and it is based on a principle of training that encourages the athlete to push
       beyond the body’s current ability to improve stamina and performance. Overreaching
       should not be confused with overtraining, which involves excessive intensity and
       duration, inadequate recovery time, unhealthy psychological state and malnutrition.
       Athletes that are overreaching are usually taking in sufficient nutrients and “fuel” to
       support their purposeful training activities, whereas athletes that are overtraining are
       nutritionally depleted and are exercising at extreme levels “just because.”

   •   I feel most confident when I am exercising and/or competing in my sport.
       Endorphins released during exercise make us “feel good.” Interestingly, compulsive
       exercisers often present with higher self-esteem despite having lower body-esteem.
       This paradox makes complete sense considering the temperament of those suffering
       from an eating disorder. These individuals are high achievers, see the world in a
       rigid, “black and white” way and tend to have low reward dependence. Due to the
       cultural reinforcement around exercise, patients feel good about themselves because
       they are excelling at something considered to be a “healthy” behavior. Additionally,
       exercise is concrete, measurable and accepted, and individuals with low reward
       dependence can do it well and push themselves privately.

   •   There is no official diagnosis; exercise compulsion must not be a real
       disorder. The treatment community and the American Psychological Association
       agree that more research is necessary to validate a formal diagnostic category for
       exercise compulsion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. However, exercise
       compulsion is a very real compensatory behavior for many individuals struggling with
       disordered eating.

Treatment is available to address compulsive exercise—occurring either alone or alongside a
diagnosed eating disorder.

“A thorough medical evaluation is also a critical component of assessment, as exercise
relates very directly to physical health and medical status,” continues Lombardi. “However,
it’s critical that an eating disorders specialist is part of the multidisciplinary treatment team
– including a therapist, dietitian, primary care and/or sports medicine physician – to help
facilitate patient assessments and assist in the identification of dangerous patterns of
behavior despite the common challenges imposed by our cultural beliefs about exercise.”

“Running on Empty: Exercise Compulsion and Eating Disorders” is available for
complimentary viewing through Eating Recovery Center’s On Demand Professional
Development Series. In this video, Lombardi explores current research examining the
addictive nature of exercise, exercise in eating disorders recovery and interventions for
compulsive exercising.

For more information about compulsive exercise, eating disorders and effective treatment,


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