Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, often involve either starvation or binging and purging. Often time, excessive exercise comes along with them. Now researchers out of the University of Kansas Psychology Department want to find out just how common that link might actually be.
Danielle Chapa, a doctoral student at the Center for the Advancement of Research on Eating Behaviors at the UK Department of Psychology has experience treating patients with eating disorders. They are often devastating and lifelong; 20,000 people die annually due to medical complications and suicide stemming from the disorders. In fact, according to Chapa,they have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. And excessive exercise might play an unseen role.
“It’s really important that we understand excessive-exercise behavior in people with eating disorders, because it can significantly prolong their recovery — and it’s usually missed. Excessive exercise is not always treated in interventions for eating disorders, because it may go unnoticed,” Chapa says in the University of Kansas News.
The study (also Chapa’s doctoral thesis) received an $84,940 award from the National Institute of Mental Health. Called the FUEL Study (Function of Unhealthy Exercise in Everyday Life), 80 participants will use their smartphones to track their emotional states before and after exercising over a seven-day period. Every few hours, a random survey is sent via an app to the phone. Over time, a mood map of each participant related to their exercise habits is created.
Participants will also wear monitors to measure the quality, intensity, and duration of their daily exercise.
“We want to see what their mood is at each of those surveys,” Chapa says. “With enough surveys throughout the day, we can see how their affect changes.”
One group that will be excluded from the study: extreme and semi professional athletes.
“We are excluding athletes from this current study but hope to do similar work with athletes in the future,” Chapa explained to Parentology. “The excessive exercise piece is tricky to parse when someone is an athlete and is required to train/exercise to a certain degree. A sign of excessive exercise in an athlete may be overtraining — [for example], doing much more than required by coaches.”
Chapa has taken pains to avoid participants’ possible sugar coating reportage of habits and moods. “In our research experience, we do not find that individuals purposefully misrepresent their behaviors. In most cases, individuals truly may not identify their behaviors as problematic or as part of an eating disorder,” Chapa says. “We use standardized semi-structured interviews to ask individuals detailed questions about their eating and exercise to understand what symptoms may be present or not present.”
When Is Exercise Disordered?
Chapa points out that there is a true line between gaining and losing the health benefits of exercise, and it’s important to understand the difference.
“Most eating-disorder symptoms, including excessive exercise, cause strain to a person’s life or health, like work problems, arguments with loved ones, missing important events, injuries, and medical complications. When impairment is present, it is easier to differentiate between exercise that is truly healthful and exercise that may be problematic.”
According to NationalEatingDisorders.org, excessive exercise itself isn’t a recognized clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, but it still takes a toll. The site recommends observing this list of signs associated with excessive exercise.
- 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
- Intense anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of guilt, and/or distress if unable to exercise
- Maintains excessive, rigid exercise regimen – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury
- Discomfort with rest or inactivity
- Exercise used to manage emotions
- Exercise as a means of purging (needing to “get rid of” or “burn off” calories)
- Exercise as permission to eat
- Exercise that is secretive or hidden
- Feeling as though you are not good enough, fast enough or not pushing hard enough during a period of exercise; overtraining
- Withdrawal from friends and family
If you or your loved one seems to fit some of these, contact a treatment professional.