EXERCISE BULIMIA IS A REAL THING
When I was 17, I fell in love with our family’s treadmill. My favorite part was the screen that counted burned calories. I’d use it to determine how long I needed to run, which depended on what I ate, or planned to eat. Low-fat popcorn warranted a shorter run. Cupcakes meant a marathon.
These workouts, which took place in the basement after my parents had gone to bed, appeared around the same time as my eating disorder (ED). A few years earlier, I’d picked up “fasting techniques” from summer camp, and entered the terrifying (and still prevalent, FYI) Pro-Ana and Mia communities, online forums filled with people encouraging one another to lose weight through starvation, purging, laxative abuse, and other awful ways, ultimately plunging ourselves into malnourishment. I learned myriad ways to get rid of a calorie, and exercise seemed the safest, most respectable way that induced the least amount of guilt. The endorphins and sense of accomplishment gave me such a high that I knew if I ran fast enough, I could erase anything.
Around 19, I started to lose my hair. My period was gone. I was constantly agitated (aka hungry). It was my first semester of college, and my new boyfriend was getting suspicious of why I never ate in front of him. I hated that my ED was interfering with such an exciting new life chapter, and so to appease us both, I decided to “phase it out.” Full-on recovery seemed too drastic, and the idea of eating something like pizza again still terrified me (later I would learn this was a considered a “fear food”). I figured that a solid first step was to enter a college program with some therapy. Nothing fancy.
The endorphins and sense of accomplishment gave me such a high that I knew if I ran fast enough, I could erase anything.
The program wasn’t as regimented as the others I’d heard of. Honestly, it was something I’d likely selected because I didn’t truly want to entirely abandon my eating disorder. My counselor was a cis-man who had never had an ED (not saying men can’t have EDs, but women typically have a different experience with diet culture). He never mentioned exercise or obsessively thinking about calories, but instead encouraged me to just drop the starvation and purging. After all, aren’t those things what most of us believe to be the sole criteria for an eating disorder?
Giving up fasting and purging seemed extreme, so I made up for the “loss” in other ways: I counted calories (convincing myself that at least I was eating), avoided fear foods, and exercised. A lot. I did this for my four years of college—watching my improv teammates eat chocolate chip cookies at midnight while I pretended to be “not hungry,” sprinting between classes, and ordering cheese-free, egg white omelettes when going on dates to the local diner. I was eating! I was exercising! I was healthy!
But here’s the thing: A huge part of me never truly wanted to abandon my obsession with food and losing weight; I just wanted to make it more socially acceptable. Healthy diets and exercise are some of the most applauded behaviors within our societal narrative—and those I could get away with.
I couldn’t control my life trajectory, so I controlled how much I ate, or how many laps I ran.
At 23 I moved to Los Angeles, where workout crazes were as common as traffic and gluten intolerance. I went to SoulCycle. I went to CorePower. I went to Barry’s Bootcamp, CrossFit, YAS, Y7, Modo, Burn 60, Cardio Barre, and Pop Physique. Orangetheory was my favorite—I loved that I could see how many calories I was burning on the tread screen, which was reiterated on the screens plastered throughout the workout room. I saved this workout for days I’d be going out to dinner. I loved getting rid of calories.
When I started obsessing over my “burn” and comparing the calories lost to the ones I’d consumed, I started to wonder: Was exercise a form of bulimia?
Short answer, yes. Exercise bulimia is bulimia—the attempt to purge calories. I know what you might be thinking, “Amanda, I exercise to feel good!” Okay. But truly, are we really working out to feel good? Or to avoid feeling guilty?
The difference between exercise bulimia and regular exercise is that the former is motivated by the desire to punish (or punish in advance). With exercise bulimia, workouts become a blood-thirsty obsession. It’s a fairly new (as in recently termed) disorder, and caused by a combination of physical, psychological, and societal factors, including low self esteem, genetics, perfectionism, abnormal brain chemicals, and diet culture. Exercise bulimia is telling yourself a yoga class is “too easy” and opting for HIIT in order to rid last night’s dinner. It’s cancelling social obligations to work out. It’s closely tracking your calories, all the while justifying the behavior because working out is a good thing. Endorphins make you happy! Hot yoga releases toxins! It’s called self-care!
But tell me, what about self-care is punishing yourself, either mentally or physically, for not making it to a workout? Exercise bulimia is real, and the longer I marinated on the concept, I realized I wasn’t only practicing it, I was defending it, just as I had once defended my bulimia and anorexia. I argued that working out was protecting me from my eating disorder—but it was there all along. That same voice was still in my head, telling me my worth was dictated by my size, calorie intake, and physical exertion.
Are we really working out to feel good? Or to avoid feeling guilty?
Like my other eating disorders, exercise bulimia came from a need to control, and my low self-esteem let it thrive. I found myself over-exercising during some of life’s more painful or uncertain moments: after a breakup, post college-graduation, and moving to Los Angeles. I couldn’t control my life trajectory, so I controlled how much I ate, or how many laps I ran.
Around this time, I got a job in the wellness industry. For four years, I was exposed to a constant parade of new workout regimes, fad diets, and yoga influencers. I wanted to fit in by being fit, and therefore seem worthy of working in wellness. And all the while, I was making myself sick.
Controversy within the wellness industry is nothing new. Instagram influencer Lee Tilghman (aka Lee from America, known for her epic smoothie bowls) recently returned from a 9-month social media hiatus, announcing that she was recovering from orthorexia, the compulsive and obsessive behavior to be healthy. In September, The Fullest presented “Unwell: A Different Type of Wellness Conference,” dedicated to dismantling dogmatic and neurotic approaches to wellness. The New York Times pondered our obsession with wellness in 2018, and later published an op-ed declaring that we “smash the wellness industry.”
Our obsession with exercise has always been a sneaky part of diet culture. Well before wellness was a trend, exercise and exercise bulimia were acceptable, and even recommended ways of controlling one’s weight. It became easy to write off exercise as health, even if it actually created mental or physical harm. Boutique fitness has only exacerbated this problem—we value “torching calories” more than we do movement.
What we don’t talk about is that over-exercise can actually cause health problems—it affects our hormones, our periods, and our mood. True health doesn’t mean militantly controlling your dairy intake or hitting the gym a minimum five times per week—but rather, noticing what behavior is actually good for us; what feels good. Sometimes that’s a run, other times it’s yoga. Other times, it’s sitting the fuck down. It’s breathing. It’s talking to your roommate about your day or going to bed early.
I recently had a conversation with a new health care provider, and she asked what I did to workout. Immediately I felt this pressure to impress. It was LA! I wanted her to think I was healthy!
“Well I do a lot of yoga,” I said, but wondered if she’d think that was enough. I started to stutter. “But I also run a few times a week, and sometimes I cycle….”
“Cool,” she said, cutting me off. “As long as you’re moving, I’m happy.”
Her words resonated with me—and took away the immense pressure I felt to maintain the perfect workout routine. And please don’t think I’m not an advocate for working out—I love to run, hike, practice yoga, and, in her words, move. But the difference sits within our motivation. Running to feel good is one thing; running as a form of punishment is another. It’s not about abandoning our workout routines, but examining when we’re glorifying or encouraging overexercise or controlling calories.
Now when I catch myself weighing the merit of a workout by how many calories I can burn, I take a step back and ask my body what it needs. Sometimes I pick yoga over running. Sometimes I choose to cycle with some good music. Sometimes I do nothing at all, and it finally feels acceptable. Heck, it even feels good.
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WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Wow. Yes. Everything you talk about in this article I’ve either lived and can relate to.
I’ve suffered from exercise addiction since I was 16, and worked out endlessly to negate the calories I was ashamed of. The one thing you say that really sticks out for me is: “What we don’t talk about is that over-exercise can actually cause health problems—it affects our hormones, our periods, and our mood.”
When I turned 25, my years of over-exercise finally caught up to me in the form of bone deterioration, hormone imbalance, erratic periods and depression. My chiropractor told me that if I didn’t back off from high impact exercise that I would likely need a knee replacement by the time I was 28. I had done so much damage to my body from exercising sometimes up to 4 hours a day that my body was retaliating against me.
I sought help from my therapist who helped me dig into my body/exercise issues, and made a plan for me to swap my high impact routine for gentle, slow moving yoga classes. I needed to reconnect with my body again and let it heal.
In the years since, it’s been a hard road redefining my relationship with exercise. Sometimes, I still feel guilty when I splurge and haven’t done enough exercise to offset my calories for the day. I need to constantly check in with myself to accept it, and let it be okay. It’s so overwhelming when we’re inundated by diet and fitness culture. I constantly feel pressured to live up to this unachievable standard to keep myself “healthy” and at “fit” as defined by these standards (just picture any Equinox gym poster). It’s not easy to ignore.
And like you say, working out to feel good vs feeling guilty is an extremely hard narrative to rewrite. It’s not often that I hear someone say, “I need to exercise, I love those endorphins” vs “I need to exercise, I have to offset my weekend.”
Kailey, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry you also experience the guilt, shame, and frustration associated with exercise bulimia. It’s not an easy thing to just “get over”, as you made clear in your comment, but I hope knowing that you are not alone provides some degree of solace. What helped me was learning to prioritize movement, and to treat my body with lots of love. That means noticing moments of guilt and criticism and replacing them with words of kindness. We’ve got this!!