Most people have heard of anorexia and how those affected will restrict their food intake in order to achieve as low a weight as possible. Anorexia is an eating disorder that is well-known, but a new variation of this illness is causing concern for experts treating the problem. Anorexia athletica is a compulsive behaviour whereby those affected will exercise excessively in a bid to maintain a very low body weight. Although it has not yet been recognised as a mental health disorder, it is something that is affecting many people around the world.
Restricting calorie intake is a classic symptom of various eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. However, excessive exercising is also a symptom of these eating disorders, and as such, doctors are reluctant to classify anorexia athletica as a mental health disorder; because of this, many individuals are going undiagnosed.
Nevertheless, anorexia athletica is something that many are living with on a daily basis. Blogs and forums have been filled with people discussing their affliction and how they feel upset and anxious if they miss out on their daily workout.
While most would agree that exercising and keeping fit is a healthy activity, when done excessively, it can cause harm. Those who are exercising to extremes are often affected by infertility, restricted body development, heart problems, arthritis, anaemia, and memory problems.
An addiction to exercise can even be fatal in some instances. Those who suffer kidney or heart failure because of exercise addiction are obviously putting their lives at risk.
Natalie Lawrence is a mother of two who developed osteopenia because of her addiction to exercise. She began training for a triathlon and, at the time, was considered to be at a healthy weight for her height. Nonetheless, it was not long before she became obsessed with training and fitness, which was initially triggered by thinner members of the same gym.
She was soon getting up at 5am so that she could fit in a six-kilometre swim before attending another two three-hour training sessions. She would spend this time running, cycling or working out in the gym. She also stopped eating carbohydrates and would only ever eat half of the food on her plate. She would also make herself sick occasionally in order to keep her weight in check.
Natalie said, “I’m a driven, competitive person. It was all or nothing for me. It became quite chronic quite quickly.”
She lost a lot of weight, and her health and wellbeing suffered as a result of her excessive exercising. Natalie said that she was falling asleep during lectures and her relationship with her long-term boyfriend ended. Although her family were shocked at the amount of weight she lost, they assumed this was just normal because of her training for triathlons.
Natalie’s obsession with exercising eventually came with a cost; she was diagnosed with osteopenia in her spine, which is a precursor to osteoporosis. Doctors blamed the fact that she had completely cut out dairy products for her condition.
This health warning was enough of a wake-up call to make her get her life back in check, but she is still concerned that she could fall back to her old ways once more. She said, “I don’t believe it ever fully leaves a person. It’s still there, but I am not going back to wanting to make myself ill. I don’t have the time to do that.”
According to a spokesperson for the eating disorder charity BEAT, there are similarities between anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica. He said, “The function of this compulsive exercise is much the same as that of restriction of calories – a drive to control something which gives the illusion of control in other areas of life.”
There are concerns that social media could be behind the surge in conditions such as anorexia athletica. Dr Jill Owen is a psychologist specialising in sports psychology, and she believes that the popularity of gym selfies can result in some individuals striving to have the best body and taking extreme measures to get it.
Excessive exercise is something that many anorexics become obsessed with. Tina McGuff from Dundee is an example of how an eating disorder and excessive exercising can almost destroy a life. She became so obsessed with food restriction and exercising that she had to be taken to hospital and fed through a tube in order to keep her alive.
Tina’s condition was triggered when, at just fifteen years of age, someone made a comment about her body. She soon started to restrict her calorie intake, and like Natalie, she began exercising obsessively. She said, “I danced until my feet bled, I ran until I was sick, I swam until I fainted and had to be pulled out of a pool toilet by an attendant who had seen me lying on the floor.”
As her eating disorder coupled with anorexia athletica almost cost her life, she is now hoping to raise awareness of the condition through her autobiography Seconds to Snap.
Source: The rise of ‘anorexia athletica’: ‘I ran until I was sick and swam until I fainted’ (The Telegraph)
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