Eating disorders

Exercise

This section includes people describing their experiences of obsessive behaviours and rituals at the time when they were ill. Some people might find reading about these experiences distressing. All the material on this website is intended to support a better understanding of why these unhelpful behaviours in eating disorders happen, how to get help for them and to support genuine recovery from eating disorders.

People often developed a compulsive need to do more exercise and different types of exercise. As with their eating, they developed fixed routines, counting and recording calories they burnt off through exercise. Some stopped doing any social sport, such as aerobics or football, and did exercise by themselves such as jogging or doing push ups, sit ups and star jumps in their bedroom. It was common for people to exercise in secret. Many said they started to hate physical education (P.E/Sports) lessons in school or felt that their popularity was measured on being good at sport in school. As with other habits that developed from the eating disorder, the need for excessive exercise started to ease off in recovery, often with the help of counselling. 

The sole purpose of exercise was to burn the maximum number of calories. Exercise was also described as a form of “purging” or “compensation” that had to follow a meal. Nikki said she never did sport for the enjoyment or overall wellbeing and Rob said he did “regimental” exercise for no other reason than he “just had to do it”.

The obsession with calorie burning could go beyond formal exercise; Nico said he had to take “any opportunity to do exercise”. Eva never let herself to sit down and would even watch TV or use the computer standing up till her “legs hurt”. In hospital she started constantly moving; for example shaking her legs at the meal table. Felicity said she would always run instead of walking and James said he’d never take the bus but walked everywhere. Life would become draining, exhausting and unhappy and there was less and less time to do anything else; studying, enjoying social life or even relaxing. Again, therapy and other forms of support could help people to tackle these obsessions. 

“Life basically became input and output. There wasn’t any other aspect to it, no social, no academic, no recreational, you know I couldn’t even have fun because that wasn’t time doing exercise.” -Ewan

We also spoke with a few people who worked in or studied sport. James was a fitness instructor and said his knowledge about fitness, nutrition and calories fed into his anorexia nervosa. Annabelle, Laura and Jasmin all danced and felt competitive dance contributed to them developing an eating disorder. They described the atmosphere between dance pupils as competitive. Target weights weren't necessarily spoken about but an issue constantly in the background. Doing any sport – or even walking – when people were underweight and ill could be very painful but people said they just had to “push through” the pain.

Recovering from obsessive exercise
When people were recovering and began to understand and tackle some of the underlying reasons for their obsessive habits, these patterns began to ease off. They started to feel less need to keep to routines. Looking back, people saw how much time and energy the routines took up. Emily wishes she would’ve “thrown my energies into” other things.
When recovering, people had to introduce exercise into their lives very carefully. Being able to do some exercise again could be a positive step and a small amount of exercise helped them to feel more secure and relaxed about eating. A dietitian could advise young people how much food they needed and the amount of exercise that was safe once they started eating and recovering.

People found many ways of getting over obsessions and routines through different behavioural, psychological and practical approaches covered in ‘Talking therapies’ and ‘Working towards recovery’.

Last reviewed July 2015.

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