Experts find link between anorexia athletica, psychological factors

Leah Hansen

Health experts agree that exercise is good for the body. However, some people may be taking exercise a step too far. 

Anorexia athletica, or compulsive exercise, can affect anyone. A person with anorexia athletica does not enjoy working out anymore but feels obligated to exercise.

Individuals with anorexia athletica repeatedly exercise past the need for health benefits. They are obsessed with their weight and diet. They may try to explain their behavior by defining themselves as a special or elite athlete.

“The problem with anorexia athletica is that exercise becomes part of the problem, so the perception of exercise is also problematic,” said Panteleimon Ekkekakis, professor of exercise psychology. “You have to go to counseling and education to re-teach from the beginning what healthy exercise is; what exercise can do for you health, for your well-being, for your fitness; but then also explain that there has to be a balance and then explain if that balance has disrupted what the consequences are. There are consequences for your muscles, immune system, cardiovascular system and cognitive system.”

Side effects of anorexia athletica are constant tiredness, depression, anxiety, injuries to muscles (when not allowed time to rest), stress on the heart muscle and, in extreme cases, death.

Currently, psychologists do not know the cause of anorexia athletica. It is thought that there is a combination of biological and psychological factors that predispose someone to a disorder such as this.

“I’m a strong believer in the influence of social factors … In my personal experiences, it was a combination of parents who did not have a cognitive filter and did not understand the possible consequences of their criticisms so they would reflect their own insecurities on their children and pressures from peers,” Ekkekakis said. “Beyond social factors, I also believe that there might be a genetic basis. Genetics influence a lot of the things about the function of the brain. We do accept that there is genetic predisposition for depression, susceptibility for stress, and I think we also have to accept that there might be genetic predisposition for cognitive appraisals that may be dysfunctional.”

Someone with anorexia athletica typically does not see their exercise habits as problematic. They see them as necessary to keep up with the current stereotypes of thin and fit.

Striving toward the unattainable goal of perfection is what anorexia athletica sufferers deal with every day. They see the need for thinness or perfect muscle tone.

“At times, people thought that the main cause was perfectionism and some form of obsessive compulsive disorder,” Ekkekakis said. “There were some studies that came out and showed an association and then they were discounted.”

Anorexia athletica causes an individual to feel the need to skip social events to go work out. This is one major warning sign of the disorder. Anorexia athletica is often accompanied by anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

Treatment for anorexia athletica can be given at a primary care physician’s office or an eating disorders treatment facility.

“I would suggest that someone struggling with overexercising start by making an appointment here at [Student Counseling Service] — they can do that either by calling or stopping by the front desk,” said Kate Sirridge, licensed psychologist at ISU Student Counseling Service. “We offer individual therapy focused on eating disorders here and we also offer group treatment for people who struggle with all types of eating issues including anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorders.”