Exercise bulimia: Too much of a good thing
May 20, 1996
Web posted at: 10:10 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Janine Sharell
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nearly 5 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders, and most of them are women. Now, a relatively new eating disorder -- exercise bulimia -- is poised to become more threatening than both anorexia and bulimia.
Exercise bulimia is characterized by excessive exercising, usually attached to feelings of guilt about eating.
The most dangerous problem with exercise compulsion is that it is virtually impossible to detect. Consequently, no one knows precisely how many women suffer from the disease.
"You can't tell from the behavior necessarily whether this is an exercise bulimic or a regular exerciser. You really need to know what a person is thinking and what is ... motivating them," according to Dr. Charles Murkofsky, with the Program for Managing Eating Disorders.
The main reason it is so difficult to identify is that doctors have continually told people that exercise is good. Working out helps people keep in shape, lowers the risk of certain diseases and improves cardiovascular endurance.
Nutritionist Sondra Kronberg explained the disease's Catch 22. "They've been told all their lives that exercise is good for them, and they're doing a lot of it so that must be even better," Kronberg said.
Unfortunately for these women, Kronberg's statement is not true if it is taken to an extreme.
Monique Stein, a recovering exercise bulimic, described her illness. "I used to run about three to five miles every morning, and then at the gym I would do between an hour to an hour and a half of the stair master or the bicycle," she said.
Stein and other exercise bulimics work out to "purge" what they have eaten in much the same way bulimics vomit after eating.
Karen Petry is another recovering exercise bulimic. She explained part of the problem of exercise compulsion, saying that others do not recognize the disease. Instead, they compliment weight loss or muscle tone, enforcing negative patterns. (129K AIFF or WAV sound)
During a typical day, Petry would feel so guilty about eating that she would exercise excessively. "I'd eat a rice cake and I felt like that was too much, so I'd have to go down and exercise an extra hour just because I ate that rice cake."
Another worrisome characteristic of exercise compulsion is the age of the victims. Fitness instructor Carol Espel pointed out that many victims are young women.
"These women come in before work, after work, maybe even during their lunch period, and they are on those machines, and they are in the classes and they are working harder than anybody else," Espel said.
Once an exercise bulimic is diagnosed, the treatment is similar to that of other eating disorders. Victims undergo therapy and counseling to improve their self-image.
When women feel better about their bodies, they can approach exercise more sensibly. But before these women can exercise in moderation, they have to understand the feelings they have for their bodies.
The exercise compulsives need to rebuild their self-esteem and base their feelings about themselves on their inner selves.
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