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Just do it!

These words of encouragement blur and begin to fade as droplets of sweat fall from your chin onto the popular athletic shoe advertisement in your magazine. You’ve just about finished your forty-five minute program on the stair-climbing machine -- for the second time today. Upon completing the rigorous workout the screen congratulates you on achieving your goal and spits out your list of accomplishments. It spells out in red dots, “CALORIES 578.” Though it also tells you how many miles you climbed and for how many minutes you stomped, calories are your main focus. As you massage your warm and quivering thighs you mentally calculate how many calories you’ve worked off as opposed to how many calories that hunk of double fudge decadence cake you inhaled at lunch must have had. “Fifteen more minutes ought to do it,” you think as you climb back onto the machine and begin stamping down the enemy – food.

Everyone has had days like this. But if you constantly use exercise to counteract, purge or compensate for eating binges, or even simple indulgences, you could be suffering from exercise bulimia.

The most common form of bulimia is associated with such purging tactics as vomiting or laxative abuse. Exercising to excess, however, is quickly becoming a popular purging method as well. And since exercise is so deeply applauded and admired in our society, those women (and most are women) who use it as their purge tactic would probably never think themselves bulimic, much less having a problem. They don’t realize that they suffer from the same obsessive-compulsive tendencies as bulimics who vomit or abuse laxatives. Estimates indicate that this increasingly popular eating/obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious problem for a good ten to twelve percent of all gym-goers. In a survey of a New York health club, psychologist Philip Harvey, Ph.D., and psychiatrist Rebecca Prussin, M.D., co-authors of the book Hooked on Exercise, discovered that twenty percent of the women who responded indeed possessed all the criteria for bulimia because of their exercise and food behaviors.

In an attempt to maintain their weight, exercise addicts will workout several hours a day every day -- their workout schedule is their chief concern. Tying into this, bulimics tend to have very narrow vision when it comes to the roles food and weight play in their lives. Once they’ve binged all they can think about is purging the unwanted calories (or working them off). Even if it means neglecting social engagements, missing time at work, or exercising with an injury, exercise bulimics will do so simply to keep up with their grueling regime, or they will become seriously depressed if forced to miss the workout. The belief is that such dedication to a regimen puts them in control of their lives. It’s an endless workout because they’re never fit enough and until they think they’re fit enough they aren’t good enough.

One of the biggest problems with exercise addiction is that it does seem to be a good thing at first. People who begin even the smallest workouts notice results almost immediately. They lose a couple pounds, their body image goes up, they get that workout high, and most of all, their self-esteem and sense of control skyrocket. And since, according to psychologist Ron Thompson, Ph.D., and author of Helping Athletes With Eating Disorders, most bulimics think in all or nothing terms, they are highly inclined to think that if some exercise is good, a lot more must be better.

While exercise bulimia can affect any person no matter the age, most are twenty-something-white women who aren’t necessarily overweight. “Many (bulimics) are highly intelligent, attractive in appearance, and capable of handling successful careers,” says Marlene Boskind-White, Ph.D. and co-author of Bulimarexia: The Binge/Purge Cycle. “Yet traditionally they have abnormally low self-esteem, a desire for perfection, a sense of loneliness and isolation, and an obsession with food as it relates to body weight.”

Another contributing factor to bulimia is a sense of loss of control when it comes to food and they focus on how to regain that control. In his book, Dr. Thompson explains that when a bulimic binges, she feels like she’s lost control. Feelings of extreme guilt and humiliation follow. Doing an incredible amount of exercise helps the bulimic assuage those negative feelings and seems to grant her that control again. On a more negative note, it also justifies overindulgent eating habits. What most bulimics don’t realize, however, is that just exercising isn’t going to solve anything. A bulimic’s food and exercise behavior patterns are deeply rooted, emotional problems and no amount of time at the gym can conquer them – it’s merely a form of evasion.

Once a woman’s body drops below a certain percentage of body fat menstruation stops, injuries occur more frequently and easily, and the body – being so overexerted – is incapable of healing itself. Few think to seek help even when the actual physical abuse of exercise begins to wreak havoc on their bodies. All too often it takes a bulimic nearly losing her life to force her into recovery.

Those who exercise to excess so as to compensate for eating binges should seek the help of a psychiatrist psychologist, or other sort of counselor. A mental health professional can help a bulimic broaden their narrow focus and vision. Broadening the perception of exercise can help bulimics see the health benefits and fun aspects of working out. Sometimes it helps to add a social aspect to the workout, like running with a friend or getting involved with the office softball team. Having a little fun, experiencing emotions and sharing team strategies lightens the whole workout aspect. What is most important, though, is practicality -- a sense of reasonableness. Working out seven days a week is begging for trouble. Five days a week of aerobic activity lasting thirty minutes or more is plenty.

So, while those athletic shoe advertisements continue to offer photographs of exquisitely chiseled women with beautiful, solid, healthy bodies, instead of making “Just do it,” your mantra, maybe something more along the lines of “Do it, but just don’t do it every day,” would be more appropriate.