Anorexia Athletica: When Exercising Becomes a Bad Thing


“The pursuit of perfection is, in truth, an empty endless cycle that leaves us emotionally and spiritually bereft, as a preoccupation with external appearance undermines inner beauty.”  
                                                                                 – Margo Maine

          The last week in February is designated National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the United States.  Eating disorders are a concern for all of us in the dance community because dancers are constantly competing to maintain an aesthetically pleasing appearance and are at a high risk for developing them.  In the past I have written several posts about body image in dancers, eating disorders, damage caused by eating disorders, and what dance educators can do to help discourage eating disorders.  This post addresses a disorder that often goes hand in hand with eating disorders but is not discussed very often.

            Anorexia athletica is a disorder described as using exercise to change the size, shape, or composition of the body in a compulsive manner.  Individuals with this disorder have a constant pre-occupation with exercise and develop a dependence on exercise that is similar to an addiction.

            Exercise and physical activity are ways to improve overall health, improve mood, and contribute to a positive psychological state.  Moderate exercise has also been shown to increase the activity of the immune system thereby helping to ward off illness.

            However, as with anything in life, when taken to an extreme, even exercise can become harmful.  For those who are battling anorexia athletica, exercise becomes something they must do.  They schedule everything in their lives around their exercise sessions, and when they are unable to exercise, they experience feelings of guilt, anxiety, restlessness, and extreme irritation.  These individuals often use exercise as a punishment for eating too much.  Since exercise burns calories, these individuals work to burn off all the calories they ingest.  As a result, the amount an individual exercises becomes an indicator of self-worth.

            Because exercise becomes a necessity for these individuals, they exercise to an extreme, continuing to exercise even when sick, injured, or in pain.

            Excessive exercise often burns more calories than an individual can ingest and creates a lack of energy, or an energy deficit.  In extreme cases the body may resort to burning muscle mass for fuel.  Constant bouts of extreme exercise can result in overuse injuries like stress fractures and muscle tears and cause the body to release large amounts of cortisol and adrenaline.  These hormones increase blood pressure, cause insomnia, and decrease the ability of the immune system to fight off illness and disease.

            Studies like the one published in Comprehensive Psychiatry in 2008 have found that anorexia athletica is common among those who are also diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that is an irrational fear of gaining weight that results in restricting food intake, often to the point of starvation. (1)  When paired together, these two disorders are a deadly combination.

            A disturbing research study published in 1993 found that dancers are at risk for developing anorexia athletica.  When compared with field hockey players and marathon runners, a mixed group of modern and ballet dancers scored significantly higher on tests measuring exercise dependence. (2)

            It is important for all dance educators to know about this disorder since they often work with dancers who are dieting to maintain a certain body shape and size.  Excessive exercise is often applauded in dance and dance educators encourage taking extra technique classes and cross-training.  It is imperative that educators be certain the students are seeking additional training for the right reasons, or they could be encouraging destructive behavior that could have horrible consequences.

 (1) Grave, R.D., Calugi, S. & Marchesi, G. (2008) Compulsive exercise to control shape or weight in eating disorders: prevalence, associated features, and treatment outcome.  Comprehensive Psychiatry, 49(4), 346-52.
(2) Pierce, E.F., Daleng, M.L., & McGowan, R.W. (1993) Scores on exercise dependence among dancers. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 76(2), 531-5.