People with exercise bulimia work out excessively in an attempt to lose weight. It can cause a range of complications, including frequent injuries, organ damage, and hormonal issues.

Some people with exercise bulimia may also purge by vomiting or using laxatives after eating. These are purging methods seen in bulimia nervosa.

Doctors sometimes use the term exercise bulimia interchangeably with anorexia athletica, which is another eating disorder that causes a person to exercise excessively. Unlike anorexia athletica, exercise bulimia usually includes a binging cycle during which a person overeats.

Read on to learn more about exercise bulimia.

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Exercise bulimia is a subtype of bulimia nervosa, not a distinct diagnosis.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes a person to binge on large quantities of food and then use purging mechanisms such as vomiting or laxatives to get rid of the food.

In exercise bulimia, a person uses excessive exercise to purge. They might run for hours or spend a large part of the day exercising. People with exercise bulimia may also engage in other purging tactics.

The two key symptoms of exercise bulimia are binging and purging through exercise.

During a binge, a person eats large quantities of food — sometimes in secret — often to deal with emotional distress. Purging is an attempt to get rid of the excess calories.

Some other symptoms a person might have include:

  • exercising significantly more than is necessary to maintain physical fitness or excel at a sport
  • prioritizing exercise above all other pursuits
  • exercising even when sick, exhausted, or in emotional distress
  • feeling constant dissatisfaction with one’s fitness level
  • having frequent exercise-related injuries
  • using other types of purging, such as forced vomiting or laxatives

In athletes, exercise bulimia may be less noticeable because athletic participation demands more exercise. But if a person exercises much more than their peers, exercises to the point of injury, or exercises after purging, these could be signs of exercise bulimia.

Exercise bulimia can cause a number of complications, including the following:

  • organ damage
  • malnutrition
  • chronic muscle or bone injuries
  • constipation
  • diabetes
  • heart health issues, such as arrhythmias
  • hormonal issues, including missed or irregular periods
  • poor athletic performance

If a person engages in other purging, such as vomiting, they may develop:

Researchers do not fully understand what causes bulimia nervosa, but some studies suggest biological factors. For example, people with bulimia are more likely to have differences in interoception, which is the ability to sense signals from the body.

Exercise bulimia is also more common among women than men, suggesting that social pressure to conform to a thin body ideal plays a role.

Doctors diagnose exercise bulimia based on symptoms. However, medical testing may rule out other causes of malnutrition or organ damage, so a doctor may order some tests.

A person may also need assessment for various consequences of exercise bulimia. For example, if a person also purges by vomiting, this increases the risk of damage to the esophagus.

Therapy is a first-line treatment for bulimia. In therapy, a person learns to recognize negative thoughts, control them, and adjust their behavior accordingly. They can also work on understanding the underlying causes of their eating disorder.

Medications, especially some antidepressants, may reduce binging. They also treat the depression and anxiety that may accompany binging and purging.

A person might also need medical treatment for the health consequences of bulimia. In some cases, this might require hospitalization.

People with bulimia, including exercise bulimia, typically have a better outlook than those with anorexia. However, it can still be harmful and have potentially life threatening consequences.

Eating disorders are chronic illnesses. A person may relapse, especially when they experience triggers such as stress, trauma, body image, and weight pressure.

People usually recover with treatment. When a person has medical complications, they may need ongoing care or have chronic health complications.

Support for people with bulimia can help them recover and more effectively advocate for themselves. Some places to seek support include:

Exercise bulimia is an eating disorder and a chronic disease. It involves exercising excessively as a form of purging calories.

This eating disorder is a serious medical condition that can damage organs, affect self-esteem, and cause chronic medical issues.

With treatment, a person can recover, reduce the risk of complications, and begin building a healthier body image.