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Early Intervention and Prevention: Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders


Kelly Ofasi

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EARLY INTERVENTION AND PREVENTION: COMPULSIVE EXERCISE AND EATING DISORDERS

What happens when friendly competition between peers becomes damaging? Or when a healthy amount of exercise becomes compulsive and harmful? This blog will cover the definition of compulsive exercise, signs to look out for and risk factors that come with over-exercising. Remember to book your place for our webinar with eating disorder coach Jenny Tomei for information on helping those suffering from over-exercising.

The 2020 Olympics featured a collection of impressive athletic feats including a number of very young medal-winning athletes. 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya from Japan won a gold medal in the women’s street skateboarding event, 16-year-old British twins Jessica & Jennifer Gadirova, won a bronze medal in the women’s Artistic Gymnastics and 14-year-old Quan Hongchan from China won the gold medal in the 10m platform diving event and earned a perfect 10 from all seven judges for two of her dives during the final. She was China’s youngest athlete at the Olympics and began diving at age 7. 

We also saw a number of athletes, notably Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, discuss the effects of the pressure on their mental health, especially Biles who was a favourite to win gold in every gymnastics apparatus. It raises the question of how much pressure is placed upon these athletes and how they cope with the peer pressure as well as the demands to win at such a young age. It is not just Olympic athletes and professional athletes who can struggle with peer pressure, this can affect any young person. People who use exercise to cope with stress can also develop unhealthy exercise and food habits.  

 

WHAT IS COMPULSIVE EXERCISE?  

Compulsive exercise, also known as exercise addiction, is distinguished by the unhealthy relationship the individual has with the exercise in question. More than just following a training plan, an individual with an exercise addiction often feels compelled to exercise no matter what.  The exercise can carry negative connotations and may be being used to reduce stress, prevent weight gain or encourage weight loss.  In some cases, individuals may feel pressure to train harder than ever due to competition with their peers or friends, for example going for longer or faster runs or lifting more weight.  

People who engage in compulsive exercise will not allow bad weather, planned activities with friends or family, illness or even injury to stop them from exercising. Compulsive exercise can also be linked to people with certain personality traits such as perfectionism or the need for control and serves as a way to cope with emotional problems including stress and anxiety. 

 

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SIGNS THAT A PERSON’S EXERCISE HABITS HAVE BECOME UNHEALTHY?  

Exercise has become something they are driven to do 

They feel guilty if they miss a workout 

They obsessively track the number of steps they have taken or the number of calories they have consumed  

They exercise more after eating 

If they are not able to exercise, they eat less 

They skip socials gatherings with friends and family to make more time to exercise 

They cannot take time off or unwind without exercise 

They become anxious and guilty when they do not exercise 

They cannot manage their emotions without the use of exercise  

They are overly competitive and become upset or emotional when they do not perform as well as their peers 

They are overly critical of their performance and are constantly seeking ways to improve  

 

HOW CAN SOCIAL MEDIA AFFECT PERCEPTIONS OF EXERCISE? 

Our access to social media further contributes to an unhealthy body image as we are constantly seeing images that idealise slender and toned bodies. Various workout apps, fitness models and body training regimes encourage people to exercise and eat a certain way to obtain the ‘perfect’ body shape. Apps and editing software also means the images we see have often been altered to fit this idealised shape. 

During the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 there was also a rise of viral fitness challenges on social media, some of which were harmless fun, but others less so.  One such trend you might not have come across saw women placing an A4 piece of paper in front of their torsos, if you could not see the sides of their stomach behind the paper, they were considered to have an ‘ideal’ figure.  Another trend aimed more at men and boys involved individuals trying to crack a raw egg in the crease of their elbow. Trends like this promote slender body images for women and muscular physiques for men and even individuals with fit healthy bodies are still encouraged to continue ‘improving’ their bodies and developing their workout regime, running faster, lifting heavier, always becoming stronger. Even when not participating in these so-called ‘fitness challenges’ social media also provides countless other ways for individuals to compare themselves to other people from total strangers and fitspo (fitness inspiration) icons to their own friends and families.  

 

RISK FACTORS THAT COME WITH COMPULSIVE EXERCISE  

Some examples can include:  

Obsessive-compulsive traits / OCD  

Perfectionism  

Anxiety and depression  

Stress  

Body dysmorphia  

There are some types of athletes who can be more prone to compulsive exercise due to their activities placing an emphasis on a certain body shape whether that be thin or muscular. Ice skaters, gymnasts, dancers and wrestlers are among some of the athletes who can feel the most pressure to keep their bodies toned and their weight down, runners who are training for marathons can also fall into a cycle of obsessive workouts. 

 

PROVIDING ALTERNATIVES TO OVER-EXERCISING  

Many people use exercise to reduce stress. If you think that a young person you work with or someone you know may be slipping into an unhealthy relationship with exercise, it is important to offer alternative ways for that they can relax and de-stress that do not include vigorous exercise. Some examples can include 

Yoga  

Breathing exercises  

Walking in nature  

Gentle stretching 

Creative outlets such as drawing, painting or journaling  

Spending time with animals 

Watching a favourite tv show or programme  

Breaks from their screens

Make it clear to the young people within your care whether you are a teacher, a sports coach, or a parent, that they can come to you for advice and support if they need it. It is also important to try to understand and empathise with the young person’s feelings without being judgemental or critical.  

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