- New research has found that exercise addiction, an unhealthy compulsion to work out, is nearly 4 times more common among people with eating disorders.
- The study by Anglia Ruskin University is the first to quantify the increased risk of exercise addiction for people with eating disorders.
- Experts say health professionals should discuss both food and exercise compulsion when treating people with eating disorders.
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Physical exercise is often celebrated as the peak of healthy behaviors, crediting with boosting productivity, staving off aging, and building strength.
But for some, fitness habits can become obsessive to the point of injury, leading people to work out at the expense of their health, social relationships, and even finances.
Now researchers have found this phenomenon, exercise addiction, is 3.7 times more common among people with eating disorders, according to a new study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity.
The link between eating disorders and exercise addiction may not seem surprising, as both involve compulsive, potentially dangerous behaviors often connected to obsessive anxiety about weight and/or body image. And previous research has found that exercise addiction is an intrinsic part of some eating disorders, tied to extreme anxiety about gaining weight.
But this study, led by Anglia Ruskin University, is the first to define the connection with hard data, calculating the exact risk factor increase.
Eating disorders and exercise addiction are both related to obsessive-compulsive behavior, but they aren't always treated together
In the study, researchers looked at nine previous studies involving 2,140 adult participants in the US, UK, Australia, and Italy, and compared the prevalence of exercise addiction to the prevalence of eating disorders symptoms, based on established clinical definitions.
They found that people with eating disorder symptoms were 3.7 times more likely to be at risk of exercise addiction that people with no signs of an eating disorder.
It suggests that obsessive exercise, and the risks it presents, should be an important part of the conversation in raising awareness about disordered eating and diet culture, which are increasingly hidden under the guise of wellness.
Athletes, for example, have been shown to under-report disordered eating symptoms, possibly out of fear of stigma.
"It is not uncommon to want to improve our lifestyles by eating healthier and doing more exercise," Mike Trott, lead author of the study and a PhD researcher at Anglia Ruskin University, said. "However, it is important to moderate this behaviour and not fall victim to 'crash diets' or anything that eliminates certain foods entirely, as these can easily lead to eating disorders."
More evidence is needed to better understand the connection, but the Anglia Ruskin study suggests that being aware of and tracking exercise could be a crucial factor in helping identify and treat eating disorders, as well as mitigate the potential dangers.
"Health professionals working with people with eating disorders should consider monitoring exercise levels as a priority, as this group have been shown to suffer from serious medical conditions as a result of excessive exercise, such as fractures, increased rates of cardiovascular disease in younger patients, and increased overall mortality," Trott said.
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