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Eating disorders (young people)

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”.

 
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Roberto describes becoming 'addicted' to exercise. He was dependent on his rigid eating and...

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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My first thing was going to the gym. I felt really good. And really that lasted for a couple of months, three or four months. And after that, well after that everything went down ‘cos I think, about that now that I think back, I probably was exercising too much, like I become too addicted to exercise probably and at the same time like my calorie intake, like I really started worrying about it, I start counting calories. I start worrying a lot about the food labels, the nutrition values. So everything was kind of, I started getting all of the things like, I started to a schedule when I’m, when I have to eat, like when I’m having breakfast, when I’m having lunch, dinner, how many calories should I have in every meal, and that kind of stuff. So a little bit after becoming very, very overwhelmed by all these things and there was up to a point that without like noticing I realised I was in the situation that I didn’t want to accept, but I was like, I was very depending on these, these things. And whenever I ate a lot or ate unhealthy or didn’t exercise I started to feel very anxious.
 
And actually like from then on all my daily routine and everything was around those two things like exercising and food. I was thinking about food and doing exercise all the time like I was in classes and I was wondering, “Okay I have one hour for doing my homework and then I have to do some exercising and then I have to take dinner and that,” so I don’t know, like I become very dependent on that.
 

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.

 

James worked in fitness which gave him access to a lot of knowledge of how to lose weight.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 20
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Like I say I was quite active when I was younger and I was in, like the football teams and the rugby teams, so obviously you have to be quite a build for that because it’s really demanding. 
 
But I did like weights when I was like younger as well. And I’ve always, because my dad’s really active, I’ve learned this from him, he’s did a lot of like long runs, well not marathons but like runs and stuff like that, and he was in the army and he was in, he did boxing and did weight lifting and stuff like that. So I’ve learnt everything sort of from him. 
 
But I’ve always, like I said I had that background so once I came to the point where I wanted to start losing weight I had quite a, you know, quite a repertoire of books, and research about how to lose weight, or what’s the best for to, to speed up your metabolism and things like that.
 
But at the point of like last year when I started to want to lose weight it was just a case of me doing more and eating less.
 
 

Steph used to exercise obsessively in hospital even with the nasogastric tube in. She had sores...

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I was never a sporty child at all, I hated PE, and then when I got ill, when I first started losing weight, I thought, “Right, I’m going to exercise a bit.” So I started doing sit ups , and then it became a bit obsessive really, it wasn’t healthy exercise, it was obsessive exercise, in that I would have something to eat and then I would need to do so many sit ups after it, and it eventually got to the stage, you know, where I would have to have some, my lunch or something, then the next three hours till it was snack time, I would exercise constantly until it was snack time, then I’d have a snack, then I would have to exercise till dinner time. So I didn’t have time for anything in my life, you know, I couldn’t see my friends, I couldn’t go out because I was exercising the whole time. And it got quite bad you know, when that, when I got very ill, I started getting sores on my back from like where I was doing sit ups and things and when, even when I was getting tube fed, I would still do sit ups in my room and the tube would run again, rub against my throat so my throat was burning, you know, through it and so, but I didn’t care, I just needed, I didn’t care what it was doing to me, what pain I was going through, I needed to do it. So I would do, you know, when I was at home, I would do my exercise in the house and then I would go for, you know, a three/four mile walk as well. And I mean, I’m talking when I’m life-threateningly dangerously BMI’s, how I need it I don’t know. But I find, you know, the power of the mind is incredible, and the physical pain that I was feeling was nothing compared to the mental anguish I would go through if I didn’t do it. And that’s how I think I was just so driven, and it was scary, when I look back it’s scary what I did.

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.
 

Eva explains how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped her see that her thoughts about eating and...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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In CBT they asked me things like is there anything that’s upset you, and I’d say yeah and then explain it. And they’d be like, “Why did it upset you? What?” And then you’d sort of break the thought down like, say you think, “Oh I can’t wear those jeans today, I look really fat.” And then they’d be like, “What,” like you’d break it down into like thoughts of why you think you look fat. And you’d be like, “Oh because I ate such and such yesterday.” Or, “I just do.” And then you’d realise, “I just do” isn’t really, you know like a valid explanation for it. And you’d think well why, because I’m exactly the same weight as I was yesterday, I can’t possibly have gained a stone in a day, sort of thing, and you think, “Oh maybe I am being irrational.” And it helped in that way to see it laid out like in three parts. Like the thought before, thought afterwards and sort of the rationale behind it. That did help seeing like logical, illogical conclusion sort of thing. It did help doing that.

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 October 2018.

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