Whether you’re an amateur fitness enthusiast or a competitive athlete, you know how important it is to maintain a healthy diet and exercise program in order to excel at your favorite activities. Eating nutritious, balanced meals is just a natural reflection of your dedication to your sport, and working out between events is the way you hone your athletic skills. But what happens when the drive to eat healthy and exercise takes an unhealthy, obsessive turn? Anorexia athletica, which literally refers to a loss of appetite caused by athletic activity, was identified by Dr. William Glasser in the 1970s. Dr. Glasser, who was studying long-distance runners at the time, coined the term “exercise addiction” to refer to the compulsive need for strenuous workouts.
Athletes, dancers, bodybuilders and runners are susceptible to this disorder, which is defined by the need to meet unrealistic ideals of physical performance through strenuous exercise and dieting.
Did you know?
According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, 75%-90% of individuals who suffer from anorexia can make a full recovery. We Can Help.
When Exercise Becomes an Addiction
The health benefits of exercise are almost too numerous to mention. Exercise can boost heart and lung function, strengthen your bones and muscles, sharpen your physical coordination and elevate your mood. It can also help you manage your weight and achieve the lean, streamlined shape that’s so highly valued by our society. But when exercise is taken to an extreme, the wear and tear on your body can have dangerous consequences. The Delhi Psychiatry Journal uses Dr. Glasser’s theory of positive addiction to identify the factors that make exercise addiction harmful:
- A positive addiction takes priority in your life; a negative addiction overshadows any other activity, including work, school and relationships
- A positive addiction is motivated by a love of your favorite exercise; a negative addiction is motivated by compulsion, low self-esteem and anxiety
- A positive addiction to exercise gives you enough activity to strengthen and energize your body; a negative addiction leaves you exhausted, sore and injured
- A positive addiction lifts your spirits and prevents depression; a negative addiction leaves you depressed, anxious and irritable
Like other addictions, anorexia athletica can produce tolerance and dependence. Exercise releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that reduce pain and create a sense of well-being, As your brain gets used to the release of endorphins, you may need to exercise for longer periods of time to get the same effect. Exercising compulsively can have severe consequences, including physical injury, mental burnout, impaired social functioning and depression. When an addiction to physical activity is combined with strenuous dieting, you may be in danger of malnutrition, dehydration, heart problems, bone fractures, kidney damage and hormonal imbalances. If you or someone you care about has gone overboard with exercise and dieting, it’s crucial to get help before the disorder becomes life threatening.
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Recognizing Anorexia Athletica
Anorexia athletica isn’t always easy to identify. In the athletic community, at fitness centers and in the popular media, we reward those who show intense dedication to their sport of choice. With a mixture of humor, admiration and envy, we refer to people who work out religiously as “exercise fanatics.”
We often don’t see any problem with friends or family members who exercise strenuously; after all, they’re pursuing a healthy lifestyle, which is a goal that many of us share.
- People with a low sense of self-worth
- People with body dysmorphia (a fixation on one or more physical flaws)
- People with other eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia
- People who are depressed, anxious or extremely stressed out in their personal lives
- Insisting on exercising every day or most days of the week, even in the case of injury or illness
- Feeling guilty about missing even one workout
- Insisting on making up a missed exercise session at the expense of other social or familial obligations
- Expressing a lack of pleasure in exercise, but going ahead and exercising anyway
- Exercising to the point of exhaustion at every workout session
- Lying about the amount of time you spend exercising
Because anorexia athletica often goes hand in hand with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, or with mood disorders like depression, the problem may be even deeper than it initially appears. The more you know about anorexia athletica, the more likely you are to identify the warning signs early and avoid serious damage to your physical or psychological health.
Getting the Right Kind of Treatment
Anorexia athletica can involve a great deal of denial. If you have a friend or family member who’s serious about sports or fitness, getting her to admit that she has a problem can be extremely challenging. But with the right level of care and support, it’s possible to help someone with this disorder achieve a more harmonious, stable life and to find pleasure in athletic activity again. Core components of a recovery plan for exercise addiction include:
- Individual psychotherapy to help you build a sense of self-esteem that’s not solely based on your body image or athletic performance
- Group counseling with peers who share your hopes and goals for recovery
- Family therapy with parents, partners or siblings who are affected by your disorder
- Medication therapy to treat underlying mood disorders or anxiety
- Nutritional counseling and meal planning to help you get back to healthy eating habits
Learning the difference between a healthy lifestyle and an unhealthy addiction is one of the primary goals of treatment for anorexia athletica.
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