16 June 1998

Too Much Exercise Can Lead To Bulimia

Bingeing and vomiting between bouts of training may be something we expect from Paul Gascoigne, but new research suggests that some young women who do too much exercise risk developing serious eating disorders. In the first-ever study to focus on the role of physical activity in the lives of women suffering from bulimia nervosa, psychologist Nancy Barnett from the University of Washington finds some disturbing connections.

"Generally, Americans need to do more, not less, exercise because this is a sedentary society," she says. "But for a minority, exercise is not helping them because it is excessive and even dangerous. Some women are doing too much, such as those who feel that they must exercise every single day at high levels of exertion. This behaviour affects their self image, their relationships and how they eat. For these women, exercise becomes a compulsion; they feel bad if they stop and will give up other important aspects of their life to make time for exercise."

Barnett studied four groups of twenty women each: purging bulimics, exercising bulimcs, obligatory or over-exercisers, and women who did not over-exercise or have an eating disorder. Purging bulimics showed the highest levels of binge eating, depression and overall psychological disturbance, with exercising bulimics coming a close second. Significantly, non-bulimics with a tendency to over-exercise showed signs of pathological behaviour too.

"These women have a greater degree of dietary restriction, preference for thinness and greater dissatisfaction with life than non-eating-disordered women," says Barnett. "This indicates that young women who exercise at high levels are at risk for eating problems and general unhappiness."

An estimated 13 per cent of young women aged 15 to 25 suffer from bulimia in the United States. As many as 91 per cent of them are thought to engage in excessive exercise to compensate for binge eating.