Exercise Bulimia by Ronda Gates, M. S., C. L. C.
Most exercise instructors know about bulimia, a serious eating disorder characterized by a binge-purge way of life where the "addict" compulsively gorges large amounts of food (often up to1000-5000 calories of nutrient free snacks and desserts) then gets rid of the potential weight building calories by vomiting and/or using laxatives. We also recognize the exercise addict whose day is filled with so many hours of exerciser weight training it interferes with every other area of their life.
But many of us are loathe to consider that many exercise professionals and participants are engaging, to some degree, in an equally dangerous eating disorder called exercise bulimia. In this syndrome a surplus, but not severely excessive, amount of calories are consumed (we call it overeating) then tempered with a punishing exercise routine to burn them off.
Exercise bulimia, like most eating disorders, is rooted in our national mania for leanness. Thanks to a media that perpetuates unreasonable standards for women, and now men, we are a nation of dieters. People who go "over the edge" in their belief that they are defective if their body isnít perfect are a setup for exercise bulimia.
Exercise bulimia usually begins when a dieter discovers that exercise generates a feeling of well being, self confidence AND weight loss. However, because eating habits havenít been tempered, there is an increased focus on using exercise solely to manage weight. Classically, as calories are consumed there is a mental focus on planning the next exercise period and, when exercising, the intensity and length of the session is about getting rid of calories consumed since the last exercise bout. When this habit shifts to an obsession (mental tension regarding the need to keep this blance) chances are exercise bulimia, a "secret" disease, is close at hand.Often, exercise is excessive, predisposing the dieter to injury and an exercise addiction. These are serious health hazards that can take years of counseling to reverse.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: All eating disorders are progressive. Although exercise bulimics live with the internal belief that tomorrow he or she wonít eat so much the reality is that, without professional help or strong peer support that day rarely comes.
As fitness professionals itís important to challenge your belief system. Do you exercise for healthís sake or to burn off calories so your body can be more perfect than it is. Does your internal language include the self deprecating "I hate my thighs (or belly or arms)" comments that can be a clue that all is not well. Does missing a day or two of exercise throw you into a panic that youíre going to get fat your thought patterns need adjustment. If so, an effort, preferably with profesional support, to reverse these thought patterns is a first step to getting well.
Most importantly NEVER encourage your class to exercise to burn off calories. Instead, remind them that exercise guarantees a longer and healthier life and a lower body fat percentage is only one of the many benefits of a balanced exercise and eating program.
You can make a difference.
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