By Meredith Sheldon
Sprinting through busy city streets, huffing on the treadmill and puffing on the elliptical, Lindsey Hall was running herself to exhaustion.
Despite shin splints and aching stress fractures, the then 17-year-old Texan used to hit the gym two-to-three times a day. It was not long until her seemingly healthy habits transformed into a harmful obsession.
Exercise can benefit one’s mental and physical health, but it can also be dangerous when taken to the extreme. Sometimes a well-intended plan to become fit triggers an eating disorder, says Beth Riley, a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and expert at the Eating Recovery Center.
Exercise-related eating disorders are increasing among younger adults. According to a 2012 study by Statista, approximately 15,000 U.S. adults aged 18 to 25 were diagnosed with an eating disorder. A large portion of the diagnoses were not bulimia or anorexia nervosa.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
The combination of overexercising and under eating can cause health risks such as cardiac arrest, GI distress, headaches, lower heart rate and bone damage, according to Riley. The main problem, Riley says, is that most symptoms are under the radar in the short term.
“People can continue to function until they end up in the hospital and that’s the scary part,” she says.
Jodi Rubin, a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and a Certified Personal Trainer, created a training program called Destructively Fit, which aims to educate and help those who suffer from these behaviors.
Rubin says exercise can become destructive to one’s health if one works out despite injury, to compensate for every meal or to avoid social interaction.
“I convinced myself I loved the runner’s high, but I felt like I was taken prisoner by the treadmill.”
Hall’s exercise addiction was just that. She says her eating disorder began in high school after the unexpected death of her best friend.
“It became an escape,” Hall says. “I couldn’t stand sitting with the discomfort of my pain or sadness, so I lived in the gym.”
“I felt pride that I would be in the gym longer than anyone. Of course it was all about control, but at the time it felt like pride,” she says.
Her exercise addiction took over her life. Her workout regime, which was solely cardio, led to bulimia, injuries and muscle pain. She would often wake up in the middle of the night with leg cramps.
“I convinced myself I loved the runner’s high, but I felt like I was taken prisoner by the treadmill,” she says.
Exercise-related disorders stem from genetics and the pressure on young people today to be perfect, Riley says.
Katherine Schrieber, a recovering exercise addict, says her obsession began when she was about 12-years-old and struggled with body dysmorphia.
She suffered from herniated discs, loss of menstruation, fatigue, irritability, moodiness and insomnia. She says her unstable home life, being severely bullied, and living in New York City during 9/11 contributed to her excessive exercise habits.
Asking for help can be a tough task, but it is necessary in order to get back on a healthy track. Now, at 26-years-old, Hall says there were many times when she wanted to ask for help but held back.
“I tried so many times to cure myself through self-help books, prayers, self-imposed rules of what I could and could not do with my eating disorder, and none of it worked,” she says.
After months of attempting to self-medicate, Hall opened up to her friends and family for help because she was tired of being sick. They hadn’t noticed her problems.
“My parents thought my exercising was a sign of strength and discipline and since I’d always been thin-ish they didn’t think anything of it,” she says.
For those battling this type of eating disorder in school, Riley recommends seeking guidance from a Residential Advisor or visiting a health and wellness center on campus.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Expert care is the key to recovery, Riley says. She says treatment requires a multidisciplinary team including a physician, therapist, dietitian and psychiatrist.
After eight years on the exercise-bulimia cycle, Hall ventured to the Renfrew Eating Treatment Center in Florida. Despite her fears, Hall says rehab stripped her of all control by monitoring her meals and prohibiting exercise.
At Renfrew, Hall had a breakthrough. She noticed that with no exercise and no harmful behaviors, her weight barely fluctuated.
Unlike Hall, Schrieber tried inpatient treatment and was not successful. She says it reinforced her unhealthy behaviors by focusing too much on her weight and calories.
Rather, Schrieber enjoys Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a cognitive therapy that is broken up into four stages. She recommends seeking a support group, resisting the urge to isolate and building a mindfulness practice to self-soothe.
Even though social media can sometimes encourage eating disorder behaviors, it can be a useful outlet to spread awareness and seek support.
Hall hid her eating disorder from friends and family for months. After posting a Facebook status about her disorder and creating a blog, her cathartic writing triggered an overwhelming amount of support from friends, family and other individuals who were experiencing the same thing.
Besides social media, writing has helped Hall and Schrieber recover and spread awareness of this disorder since it is commonly overlooked in the health and fitness industry.
Schrieber is the co-author of a book titled The Truth About Exercise Addictions which highlights the struggles of compulsive exercise disorders.
Hall created her own blog and is working with recoverywarriors.com, an eating disorder recovery site. Since exercise bulimia can be overlooked in the fitness industry, she says writing has spread awareness and hope to others suffering.
“Everyone has a voice that is screaming to be content,” she says. “I’m healthier in my mind and I enjoy what exercise does for my mental health. Writing keeps the awareness going.”
Exercising outdoors and steering away from calorie counters helps, Hall says. Hall has found a passion for cooking and for hiking, both of which she recommends to those struggling with exercise bulimia.
“Exercise is beautiful for the mind, but when you develop the types of patterns I’ve had, the struggle is always real to try and balance healthy exercise and unhealthy obsession,” she says.