Compulsive exercise is often a symptom of eating disorders. It is common for a child who is developing an eating disorder to take a sudden interest in running and other vigorous forms of exercise. Given that exercise is a symptom which is directly related to the energy imbalance that triggers and maintains a restrictive eating disorder, it is important for clinicians and caregivers to monitor and manage patients’ exercise during treatment and recovery.
When a patient has an active eating disorder, it is generally ineffective to use exercise or sports as an “incentive” to get him to eat more or gain weight. Even the patient who absolutely loves soccer, and says he would do anything to keep playing, probably won’t be able to eat enough to make that happen. The malnourished anorexic brain is just not capable of overriding symptoms, no matter how alluring the reward may be.
For people with eating disorders, exercise poses numerous medical risks including stress fractures, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, and heart arrhythmia. Further, exercise can be counterproductive to treatment goals when a patient needs to restore weight. For these reasons, I recommend that patients with Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa abstain from all physical activity until they meet the following criteria:
a.) Complete weight restoration
b.) Complete abstinence from binge/purge behaviors for at least two weeks
c.) Consistently eating complete, balanced meals with little resistance
d.) Sufficient hydration
e.) Willingness and ability to increase nutrition and hydration to compensate for activity
f.) Medically cleared to exercise by physician
Explaining the dangers of exercise to the eating disordered patient is important but rarely sufficient to curb the compulsion. Patients with exercise compulsion need an authoritative source to tell them directly, in no uncertain terms, that all exercise must be stopped until the above criteria are met. In my practice, the hiatus from exercise typically lasts for several months, but this varies widely based upon the patient’s severity of illness and response to treatment.
Abstaining from all physical activity means stopping sports, dance classes, martial arts, and any other extracurricular activity that involves movement. It also means no PE at school, no bike riding, no home workouts, no yoga, and no long-distance walking.
Parents can do a number of things to help prevent their ill child from exercising. They can obtain a doctor’s note to except him from PE class, they can call the coach to inform him that the child will not be able to play for the rest of the season, they can give him a break from his usual chore of walking the dog.
When the exercise compulsion is strong, more serious measures must be taken. Some parents may need to get rid of home exercise equipment, terminate their child’s gym membership, or hide her running shoes. Parents must be extremely vigilant in protecting their child from secretly exercising.
Any time spent behind closed doors presents an opportunity for the patient to succumb to the exercise compulsion. It is not unusual for anorexic patients to exercise in the middle of the night, to sneak out of the house to go running, or to do calisthenics on the bathroom floor. Sometimes it is necessary for parents to sleep in the same room with their child and provide round-the-clock supervision for weeks or months at a time in order to break the exercise compulsion.
Full nutrition and weight restoration often help tremendously in lessening the compulsion to exercise. Many recovering kids will lose interest in exercise once the compulsion has faded. These are often the kids who first began exercising in the context of their eating disorder, but never really enjoyed their activity. Once recovered, these kids will often return to lives that are not particularly active, and decide to pursue other interests instead, such as music, art, or a very busy social life.
For some children, exercise has been a part of their lives since they were very young, but took on a new intensity when the eating disorder arrived. For example, a 12-year-old girl who loves to dance and has taken ballet since preschool may suddenly start taking eight dance classes a week instead of her usual four. As another example, a teenage basketball player may begin rising at 4:00 AM to go jogging in addition to afternoon practices with his team. These kids suffer tremendously as the activities they love become tools for their eating disorder to use against them.
In my experience, these patients are often able to return to the sports and activities they previously enjoyed without compromising their recovery, so long as they are physically and mentally ready to do so, and so long as their activity is monitored and limited. The young dancer described above may return to her studio, once weight-restored and back in school, for three or four classes per week. The recovering teenage basketball player may be permitted to practice with his team, but would not be allowed to exercise outside of scheduled practices.
While it’s rarely effective to use sports as an incentive for a sick patient to get well, sports can be a great incentive for a recovered patient to stay well. Many patients, once physically and psychologically recovered, feel motivated to do whatever it takes to maintain their exciting new life. I have found that exercise contracts work well for these patients.
For example, my former patient, whom I will call Andy, played on a competitive year-round traveling soccer team. When Andy developed Anorexia Nervosa at age 14, his parents and I agreed that he would need to take five months off from soccer to restore his weight and focus on his recovery. Once he was feeling better, Andy became excited to rejoin his team.
Andy’s family and I supported his return to soccer so long as it did not interfere with his recovery. We developed a written contract which stated that Andy may participate in club soccer so long as he maintained his weight, ate all of his meals and snacks, drank 8 glasses of water per day, abstained from exercise outside of team practices, and attended monthly therapy sessions. We also agreed that he would drink a smoothie after each soccer practice and that one of his parents would travel with him to all tournaments to ensure that he ate enough to fuel his activity.
Certain solo long-distance endurance activities, such as cross country running and competitive swimming, pose particular risks for patients predisposed to eating disorders. This is in part due to their very high energy requirements, in part due to their solitary nature, and in part due to the extreme rigor of the activity which demands a high level of dedication. Not only do these factors attract young people who are competitive, driven, and dedicated (read: predisposed to eating disorders); they also create the perfect formula for triggering and perpetuating an eating disorder.
If a recovered person who had been a runner or a swimmer prior to getting sick expresses a desire to return to athletics, it may be preferable for him to choose a different sport. Team sports such as volleyball or basketball may be more conducive to sustained remission.
Activities with an artistic or aesthetic element, such as gymnastics, dance, figure skating, and diving, can pose a risk for those in recovery from eating disorders, particularly if body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness were major symptoms of the patient’s illness. If a former dancer/gymnast/athlete wishes to return to these activities, certain factors must be considered. In addition to the criteria for resuming exercise that I listed above, these young people should attain a certain level of body acceptance prior to returning to their activity. They need to feel at least somewhat comfortable in a leotard, and they must be strong enough to challenge or ignore any negative body thoughts that may arise. If a young person experiences a noticeable increase in eating disordered thoughts or behaviors upon returning to her activity, this is an indication that she likely needs more time off to recover before she can safely return.
It is important for dancers and athletes to return to a nurturing environment that does not encourage food restriction, weight loss, or winning at all costs. It is helpful for parents to speak with coaches and trainers to alert them of their child’s vulnerability and ensure that the atmosphere is conducive to health and well-being. There are dance teachers and coaches who encourage full nutrition, healthy body image, self-care, and a balanced approach to life. These adults can be positive forces in helping a young dancer or athlete sustain remission.
It is of utmost importance that family members and treatment professionals convey, through their words and their actions, that the patient’s physical and mental health are the number one priority. Participation in activities that jeopardize health or fuel emotional distress should be avoided. Participation in activities that bring joy and enhance well-being should be encouraged.