What Is Exercise Bulimia? Here’s How I Recovered From This Lesser Known Eating Disorder
I haven't always had a healthy relationship with exercise. While I can now say my workout routine provides me with a cathartic outlet to channel stress, anger, frustration, and really anything pent-up inside of me, there was a time when my workout habits were very disordered and compulsive, when I couldn't dream of going a single day without exercising for hours on end. In January, I decided my addiction would no longer be the boss of me: I stopped exercising, because that was the best thing for me to do at the time — and choosing to recover from exercise bulimia ultimately taught me more about myself than any trip to the gym or yoga studio ever could have.
To give you a bit of the back-story, in 2014, during my sophomore year of college, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. Part of this very complicated diagnosis included what medical professionals refer to as exercise bulimia. According to Dr. Neeru Bakshi, medical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Washington, exercise bulimia is when someone uses exercise as a means of purging. "Some of the common signs [of exercise bulimia] include exercising even when sick or injured, prioritizing exercise over social or family functions, fear of resting, anxiety in situations when exercise is not an option, guilt when unable to exercise, and refusal to eat if unable to exercise," Bakshi tells Elite Daily.
Exercise bulimia is extremely harmful to the body — so much so that, for women, it can potentially lead to amenorrhea, which is when you suddenly stop getting your period. According to Cory Sarrett, a consultant for All Inclusive Health in New Orleans, Louisiana, sudden and sustained weight loss, as well as overexercising, can both cause your period to stop. "This type of weight loss, which can occur due to an eating disorder, disordered eating, and excessive exercise, causes a disruption in the body’s hormone production," Sarrett tells Elite Daily.
This is ultimately what happened to me in my experience with an eating disorder, the diagnosis of which not only included exercise bulimia, but anorexia, too. Along with exercising obsessively, I was severely restricting my calorie intake, and I was limiting myself to eating only a small amount of what I believed were "clean" foods (for me, this entailed a whole lot of steamed and raw vegetables, but absolutely no meat, dairy, or sugar, as well as very limited healthy fat sources). Between that, frequent trips to the gym, to the yoga studio, and much more, all in the same day, every day, I was quite literally destroying my body from the inside out.
Looking back on the four years that followed my initial diagnosis, I literally cannot recall a single day that I didn't force myself to exercise for hours on end. And yes, you read that correctly: Even after I was told by my doctor that I have both exercise bulimia and anorexia, I continued to exercise relentlessly, day after day, ignoring the fact that both my body and my mind were unbelievably overworked and wholly exhausted. The thing is, I genuinely believed nothing at all was wrong. I was a brilliant hider, justifier, and curator. I isolated myself in the comforting arms of my addiction to exercise (yes, even something as healthy as exercise can become addictive). The idea of letting go of a potentially fatal disorder and embracing a healthier, more balanced lifestyle might sound like an uncomplicated and direct solution to you. But to the dizzy, hollow, distant, and shadowed version of myself that my eating disorder had imprisoned me in, letting go wasn't ever an option — until it was the only option.
Given that I was in a perpetual state of denial regarding my diagnosis and hiding it from everyone around me, it wasn't until a check-up with my doctor during my senior year of college that I discovered I'd lost an unhealthy amount of weight. My clothes were hanging loose on my body, but my strict workout schedule continued to grow more rigid by the day, leaving no room for alterations, even when people around me began to express concern. To be completely transparent, I probably would have allowed this to go on a lot longer if my doctor didn't express immediate concern about my extreme weight loss during that check-up. Even my abnormally slow heart rate, a common symptom of anorexia, hadn't phased me at the time. My mind was sick.
It was only during that one doctor's visit that I discovered my extreme and sudden weight loss, along with my compulsive exercise habits at the time, were part of the reason why I wasn't getting my period anymore — another detail I had chosen to bury and gloss over as I fed into jealousy that other girls around me expressed, because I "was so lucky that I didn't have to buy pads and tampons," they would often tell me. But my period had stopped because of all the harm I was doing to my body, and there's nothing at all to envy about that.
During that doctor's visit, I remember sitting on the cold examining room table, willing myself to shrink away and disappear and return to my comfortable fantasy where everything was OK — where I wouldn't have to face the reality of my illness. My doctor looked me directly in my withdrawn, grayish eyes, and told me that if I didn't make the decision to wake up and begin the long journey toward recovery, I would inevitably be dealing with long-term health repercussions like bone loss, osteoporosis, and a slew of other complications.
To say I wasn't taking care of myself at all during this time would be a massive understatement, and my body's way of communicating that to me was to stop giving me a consistent, monthly menstrual cycle. It was a clear sign that my body felt like my actions were indisputably putting it in danger, and I knew I needed to make a serious change in my exercise and eating habits in order to be truly healthy and get back to feeling like myself. But "serious change," to me at the time, meant only slightly upping my calorie intake and taking a few rest days here and there. However, both my primary care doctor and my dietitian at the time told me that moderate changes to my diet and exercise patterns wouldn't cut it, and it was imperative that I "go all-in," as they described it, by resting as much as humanly possible, eating frequently and consistently throughout the day (every two to three hours, to be exact), and halting all physical activity.
According to Meg Dixon, an integrative registered dietitian at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, recovering from an eating disorder is a different journey for every person who experiences it, "but in all situations, the key is to remove the stressors." She tells Elite Daily over email, "This often means taking a break from exercise and greatly increasing the energy intake. The quicker one’s body feels safe, the quicker the [menstrual] cycle will return."
Essentially, "removing the stressors" — aka exercise, restricting my food intake, etc. — was going against everything my eating disorder loudly and convincingly deemed "correct" at the time, not to mention scarier than anything I could imagine. It may sound dramatic to you, but let me assure you: To someone with an eating disorder, letting go of any sense of control is terrifying. Although I wasn't truly living in any sense of the word, I was comfortable with my false sense of control, with being constantly isolated, withdrawn, and empty.
However, my doctors told me that if I wanted to live a full life, and if I ever wanted to exercise again without the high risk of breaking or fracturing my bones, I had to make these serious changes. If I hoped to have children at any point in the future (I do), I had to do exactly what they said — and those words were what forced me to wake up and take the jarring, ice-cold, incredibly uncomfortable plunge into three months of rest, restoration, and abundant nutrition.
During those three months, my body proved to me just how smart it is. While it had reverted to a state of survival during the deepest depths of my eating disorder, I was now, slowly but surely, realizing how good the human body truly is designed to feel. Emotionally, this meant experiencing everything, from good, long cries of release, to the return of my sex drive, to the feelings of euphoria and passion that moved in where vacant indifference used to live. Physically, I developed beautiful, sweeping valleys along the outlines of my body: feminine hips and breasts, a curvature that malnourishment had stolen from me. I watched pretty, tiger-like stripes emerge on the body parts that were stretching and changing and making room for expansion and growth. At first, I felt infuriated and enraged by the stretch marks — how could my body betray me? But now, I'm in awe of my body's ability to shelter me from my own chaotic actions, and the fascinating lines left behind on my breasts, hips, thighs, and lower back to remind me of my infinite capacity to accomplish what once seemed impossible.
And then one day, my period returned. Have you ever breathed a sigh of relief and liberal emotion to see crimson blood staining your underwear? I did. My inhale got caught in my throat, and I placed my hand on my stomach, welcoming the unfamiliar, salty, gratitude-laden tears streaming down my face. I felt, in that moment, like I'd won a prize of some kind. After a month of rest and self-care as my two main priorities for my health, my body had taken notice of the changes, and my menstrual cycle had finally come back and was slowly returning to normal. I continued not to exercise for two more months following the return of my period, as per my doctor's instructions, to make sure I wouldn't startle my body, as my physician said this might cause my cycle to disappear again.
During my recovery, my meditation practice helped me take my mind off of the debilitating anxiety that set in with the prolonged prescription of no exercise. According to Eating Recovery Center's Dr. Neeru Bakshi, coping mechanisms like journaling, meditation, and spending time with a supportive community, are all helpful, practical ways to replace the destructive patterns associated with eating disorders. "Connection to one’s thoughts and feelings, and being mindful of one’s values, can be quite useful in recovery, as these can help remind someone of why they are choosing recovery and how recovery-oriented behaviors are in line with their personal values," he tells Elite Daily. "Additionally, connecting with friends and loved ones can also be useful in regards to moving forward in recovery."
Countless times, I remember yearning to unapologetically lace up my sneakers and go for a long run so I could sweat and push myself and challenge my muscles and disobey the rules. But instead of deceiving my treatment team of medical and mental health professionals by hitting the gym, running, lifting weights, and restricting my calories — like I had for so many years — I took time to rest, spend downtime with my amazing and supportive friends, go to therapy, and indulge in self-care practices like journaling and meditation. I kept moving forward.
In writing, these three months might seem linear or cut-and-dry — three months of obeying the rules, eating, and resting. But letting go of my addictive patterns was the most strenuous, exhausting, and grueling process I've ever been through, especially because, in moderate amounts, exercise is now one of my main, go-to strategies for coping with anxiety, an outlet to channel anything I'm feeling. These three months felt like an eternity, and at times, I really had trouble believing I was going to make it out OK on the other side. I constantly fought against compulsive urges to surrender to my toxic habits, to wave a white flag in the face of my demons and allow them to coax me back to the comfort of hollow emptiness.
But I didn't give in, and I did make it. And let me tell you: It was worth every tear, every therapy session, and every insensibly dark day. When I stopped working out for three months and committed to recovering from my eating disorder, it taught me just how resilient my body truly is. My body, and my mind, can go through hell and back and still surprise me with what they're able to accomplish.
Now, when I do exercise (in much less intense sessions, with less cardio, and with mandatory rest days), I'm endlessly grateful, every single time, for not just my strength, but also the sheer ability to move at all. It's a beautiful thing that I took for granted for a very long time — and I almost lost it.
Going to my doctor and taking her advice was an amazing first move toward recovery, All Inclusive Health consultant Cory Sarrett tells Elite Daily over email, and anyone who's struggling with similar health issues, she says, should see a doctor immediately if they notice their period has gone missing in order to get the right diagnosis and treatment. In addition to consulting your primary care doctor, finding a great dietitian that you trust, like the integrative RDs at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, can help you navigate the very scary and very real steps on the road to recovery.
There are also a variety of resources for those struggling with an eating disorder, including the Academy for Eating Disorders, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Related Disorders, the Binge Eating Disorder Association, and the Eating Disorders Coalition, to name a few, which are all designed to provide you with extensive information, support, and treatment options for your specific needs.
If you or a loved one needs help, or if you'd like additional information about Eating Recovery Center, call 877-789-5758, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit eatingrecoverycenter.com to speak with a Masters-level clinician.