Compulsive Exercise

Although Compulsive Exercise is not recognised as a primary disorder, it is a strong symptom of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa.

Often individual’s suffering from Bulimia Nervosa (BN) may use compulsive exercise as a means to control their bodyweight or to compensate for binge-eating episodes.

An individual with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) will often use compulsive exercise to achieve further weight loss.

Athletes (especially female) are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder with one study finding the number of athletes at risk of developing Anorexia Nervosa (AN) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN) to be;

  • AN in females 35% whilst males 10% (although we know in males this figure is much higher)
  • BN in female 58% whilst males 38% (although we know in males this figure is much higher)

Coaches and Trainers need support, education and prevention resources, through the same study it was found that;

  • 91% reported dealing with an athlete with an eating disorder
  • 93% felt increased attention needs to be paid to preventing eating disorders for female athletes
  • 27% felt confident identifying an athlete with an eating disorder
  • 25% worked at an institution with a policy on managing an eating disorder risk

Compulsive exercise may be defined as exercise that significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or when the individual continues to exercise despite injury or other medical complications. (Lichtenstein et al. 2017).

Related to Compulsive Exercise is a condition that primarily occurs in athletes known as Relative Energy Deficit in Sports (RED-S).

RED-S is an imbalance in energy intake and energy output that has detrimental effects on bone health, menstrual function (in women), metabolic rate, immune function, cardiovascular health, and psychological health.

Adults and Young People who are athletes are at a greater risk of RED-S because they require additional nutritional needs to support not only their training schedule, but also their growth and development (Mountjoy et al. 2014). For athletes at all levels of sport participation, assessing intake needs and adjusting intake to meet the needs of training is vital.

Some signs to look out for

  • Heightened anxiety if unable to engage in exercise
  • Perfectionism and rigidity with regards to exercise behaviours
  • Exercise taking a priority over other activities and commitments (e.g. spending time with family and friends, work or school)
  • Refusing to miss an exercise session, despite being ill or injured
  • Exercising in isolation, rather than with others
  • Exercising to the point of physical pain and often beyond
  • Exercising in excess, despite not having a tangible goal or competition
  • Fear of what might happen if unable to engage in exercise

Experiencing Compulsive Exercise

‘I continue to exercise despite being physically ill. I exercise through having a cold, a sore throat and even with the flu. I just can’t bear to feel the guilt that overwhelms my mind when I am unable to engage in physical exercise’.

My compulsion to engage in exercise on a daily basis is that strong I even went for a 2 mile run on my Wedding day. I am too fearful of what might happen to me if I don’t engage in some form of exercise on a daily basis. It feels like my whole world will fall apart’.

The Compulsive Exercise Test (CET) and Loughborough Eating Disorders Activity Programme (LEAP) are the world’s first clinical assessment tool and intervention designed to assess and treat compulsive exercise among eating disorder patients.

First Steps has been supporting adults and young people with a compulsion to exercise and risk of eating disorder through our qualified LEAP consultant who works with the client and in the case of young people also provides the education and support techniques agreed as part of a co-produced care plan that the client supported by partner can use for supported self-care.

Respected by professionals we work with the sports and leisure sector to provide our Continued Professional Development training combining CET, LEAP and RED-S into a one day workshop that can be contextualised to any club or leisure centre centre setting;

  • Acro Sports – Gymnastics – Dance Sport – Competitive Dancing – Cheer Leading
  • Cycling
  • Equine Sports
  • Running
  • Athletics
  • Endurance Sports
  • Goal and Field Sports

Experts by Experience, as with all of our peer support staff and counsellor’s, lived experience resonates positively with clients who see first hand that recovery is possible and the support being provided can be a source of trusted non-judgemental mentoring and education.

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