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Exercise Excess?

Bad for bones continued...

One reason exercise bulimia has gone unrecognized for so long is that it can't be diagnosed simply by tallying up the number of hours a person exercises. "There's no single cut-off or dosage where we can say, 'Aha, you've gone too far,'" says Jack Raglin, PhD, a sport psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington. The person's mindset provides a better indicator, says Raglin. "Exercise addicts don't exercise to improve their health or train for a specific event, they're exercising for the sake of exercise."

Weiner had plenty of signs that something was amiss. "I became withdrawn and isolated," she says. "And I was very focused on my appearance. I was hypercritical of myself and had drastic mood shifts." Sacker says exercise bulimics also tend to be anxious and agitated when they're not exercising, and to keep working out even if they're hurting or fatigued. In fact, most seek help only when they're faced with injuries severe enough they can't push through them, says Sacker.

Because she didn't fit the label, Weiner never thought she had a problem. She always equated eating disorders with self-starvation or induced vomiting, and she did neither. Then came her defining moment. One day, at the age of 17, Weiner was unable to meet her daily exercise quota, and she panicked. She decided, for the first time, to make herself throw up. But as she bent over the toilet, something stopped her. "I could die from this," she thought.

Asking for help

So Weiner sought the advice of a nutritionist. Her nutritionist sent her to a therapist, who helped her sort through the emotions underlying her exercise addiction. "Once I learned the language of this problem it was a lot easier to talk about," she says. Weiner also attended group therapy. "It was really empowering to meet with seven other women who had gone through the experience. I realized that I'm not alone."

Weiner received both individual cognitive therapy, aimed at changing harmful thought patterns and emotions, and behavioral therapy in group sessions, aimed at shifting destructive behavior. This sort of multifaceted approach is typical, says Sacker. He recommends that exercise bulimics find a team for support, including therapists and a physician who can help diagnose and treat the physical effects of overexercise.

Weiner has a message for others who are struggling with an exercise addiction: "Recovery is 100% possible." The first step, she says, is admitting you have a problem. "Take a risk and talk to someone about it." And find a doctor or psychologist who can help you work through the root cause of your problem.

Finding new ways to deal with emotions is an important part of the healing process, says Sacker. Many women in Weiner's therapy group discovered that journal writing helped them work through their emotions in a constructive way. Most also sought other ways of expressing themselves, often through artistic pursuits like dance or painting. One woman even wrote songs about her experience.

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