Let’s Talk About Exercise Bulimia

by thethreepennyguignol

Please note this article contains discussion of eating disorders.

So, I wrote an article about The Whale and eating disorders a couple of weeks ago, and since then, a few people have reached out to me to talk about my experiences with bulimia. And what I’ve discovered in the course of these conversations is that exercise bulimia is not as well-understood as it should be, and I’d like to do a small something to try and change that.

Exercise bulimia is a subset of bulimia that revolves around the use of exercise as a form of purging (purging, in this respect, referring to attempts to “negate” food consumed through methods like laxative abuse, vomiting, or, in this case, exercise), and it’s probably what plagued me the most as a bulimic – I spent probably two years at my worst, eating a diet that probably looked normal from the outside, but that was constantly offset by gargantuan and excessive amounts of exercise as a desperate attempt to continue to control my body. I called it “recovery”, for a long time, because I wasn’t purging through vomiting any more, but it had a similarly shitty impact on my body and my health. I had consistent injuries, suffered from dreadful insomnia, lost my period, and generally just pushed my body well beyond it’s limits in a way that did me none of the good exercise is meant to. It’s not just the physical effects, though – the anxiety and discomfort I felt hitting when I didn’t get to work out the way I had planned to, and the stress of making sure I didn’t spook anyone but letting them see me doing too much, sneaking in those step-ups in the middle of the night while my partner was asleep, was equally hellish. Building an entire life around exercise and constant, compulsive, restless movement as a last-ditch attempt to cling to some kind of control over my body was fucking awful, frankly.

I’m certainly not alone in this – I know a lot of people anecdotally who’ve either jumped from one eating disorder into exercise bulimia, or who used it as their primary method of purging since the start of their disorder – but it’s not something I really see talked about very much, which kind of makes a sick kind of sense.

Because exercise is one of those Virtuous Things that we can do to prove we’re good, healthy, adult, mature, and worthy people, exercise being used as part of an eating disorder (as it so often is, but probably most explicitly here) is far easier to cloak. Shitting yourself in public as a result of laxative abuse or loudly puking in someone’s guest bathroom are not culturally venerated in the way that exercise is, so it’s far easier to see those as the obvious problems they are. But fitness is something good, something healthy – something people build careers off of (don’t get me started on the disordered habits plenty of fitness influencers promote, too). Exercise also, often, is framed as a way to nudge our bodies towards the most acceptable version of themselves, which is to say, the thinnest, most toned, most lean version possible. Exercise is something you put on your New Year’s resolution list, in a way you don’t with “drink enough liquid laxatives to spend twenty straight hours running for a toilet”, you know?

That cultural acceptance allows us to hide a disordered and even dangerous relationship with over-exercise right out in the open. It’s unsettlingly easy to twist over-exercise into a feat of endurance, dedication, and skill in a way that people don’t question, and I believe that’s one of the reasons it’s so dangerous. Even to ourselves, it’s possible to lie and keep those secrets, to turn exercise bulimia into something worthy and even admirable to people outside of it. I know I did.

Recognizing exercise bulimia is a really vital way to undo this hiding-in-plain-sight eating disorder, both in ourselves and in offering support to other people you might be concerned about. If exercise is becoming something like a compulsive behaviour, if your exercise routine is become so rigid and focused that you’re finding yourself distressed, depressed, or anxious when you can’t go through with it the way you wanted to, and if you’re consistently denying yourself food or calories until you’ve “earned” them through lengthy or strenuous workouts, it’s probably time to have a look at your relationship with exercise and whether it’s become something unhealthy for you. Helping other people you have concerns about is more complicated, but starting a conversation about their exercise habits in a non-confrontational and supportive way; check out this excellent guide for more in-depth advice on how to approach these conversations.

If you’re struggling with exercise bulimia or over-exercise as part of an eating disorder, please know that you deserve help and support for this, even if it feels as though letting go of that control is impossible. It’s not easy, but the expansiveness of your life outside of the borders this disorder puts on you is worth it.

(header image via Marathon Handbook)