This article focuses on mental health and eating disorders. In as such, it may be triggering to some. Please seek immediate help if you or your loved one is in an eating disorder or mental health battle.

When I first was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 17, I felt completely alone. My “challenges” became the elephant in the room of nearly every gathering with friends or family.

I had an eating disorder. No one knew what to do.

Ten years later, I am incredibly thankful for the support and care I’ve received from various friends, family members, and clinicians. When some “experts” said I would likely not survive—and certainly wouldn’t ever competitively run again—my team has fought for me and held hope even when I have not.

But I often wonder how things would have been different if more family members, friends, doctors, teammates, and coaches would have seen the signs. So, I’m the best way I know how, I’d like to share some key signs.

Please know that I am not a licensed clinician, nor can I possibly explain all the nuanced warning signs of eating disorders or compulsive exercise. That’s why I am breaking this into multiple articles, starting with exercise compulsion.

Exercise compulsion, or addiction, is a specific struggle within many eating disorders and is sometimes called “anorexia athletica” (though not listed as such in the DSM-5). It’s something I’ve personally battled since high school, so I want to share what I know. Here are the signs:

1. Rigidity surrounding routine

Routines are incredibly beneficial, but only to the extent that they enhance rather than confine our lives. If an individual you love refuses to switch up their routine or is in severe distress if they have to disrupt it, that’s a key sign that their reasons for exercising are not serving them well.

Life happens; that means sometimes we run at different times, lift on a different day, practice with a friend who’s not quite to our skill level, and, yes, sometimes we take an unplanned day off to rest or play. That is healthy, and it’s a skill that even the most elite athletes practice. You and I need to be able to do that as well because our sport is an aspect of our identity, not the entirety of who we are. Balance breeds joy and success. I promise!

Balance breeds joy and success.

2. No or little downtime

As I mentioned in #1, sometimes life demands that we take a breather and prioritize other aspects of our mental and physical health. If your loved one is going from one activity to the next, this may be a sign that they’re attempting to distract from mental chaos or that they are completely operating in rigidity with their body.

Some people (myself included) genuinely love being active. The concern arises when individuals have no break from that (and in a way that is contrary to how they used to behave). Training for a half marathon absolutely necessitates commitment, but that commitment includes proper rest. If someone decides to run, bike, walk, lift, and sleep in continuum: there’s an issue. And as I’ll address in #4, this pattern has consequences.

3. Inability to listen to the body’s needs

There’s a real reason that non-stop movement is t advisable. Our bodies were created to rest. When we deny them that need, they can’t keep up.

As a collegiate athlete, I was often bewildered as to why I often had one injury after another. Even though I had restored weight by my junior year, I was still constantly dealing with signs that my body was tired—mental burnout, muscle injuries, nerve pain, and three stress fractures.

But I didn’t slow down. I was so consumed by my rules for training, daily walking, and training, and restricted intake; that I couldn’t fathom taking a day off or asking for help.

Now that I have asked for help and have let my body heal, I am actually having more fun and getting better training results than I ever have. A brain that is mentally ill can’t conceptualize that, but I promise it’s true.

4. Increased isolation or secrecy

There is a point of awareness in every person’s mental health journey. I had multiple of them, and each one challenged my identity. I wasn’t ready to fully surrender though, so as soon as I and others began to see the problem, I hid.

Increased isolation and deception are key indicators of a mental health battle. As we say in treatment: eating disorders thrive in secrecy. Exercise compulsion—which is most commonly seen in individuals who also have an eating disorder—is no different. If your loved one is frequently disappearing without explanation, canceling plans, and/or spending more time alone; I encourage you to be curious as to why and consider broaching the topic to see if they may indeed be hurting.

5. Prioritizing movement above other values

As an echo to point #1, I want to stress that commitment is not synonymous with addiction. When an individual is battling an exercise addiction, they become singularly focused on movement, so much so that their other values are disregarded. If nothing supersedes training/movement routines, they aren’t routines. They’re rituals, and they aren’t serving your loved one well.

6. Subtle increases in training (often minimized by excuses)

There’s nothing abnormal about shifts and upticks in training, especially among athletes. But if your loved one (or you) only allows the pendulum to swing one way—“more”—then that is a problem.

If your loved one only allows the pendulum to swing one way, that is a problem.

During the height of my struggle, I easily rationalized to my therapist how five runs a week turned into six and then seven. Slowly, I added more and more training, and the thought of decreasing (even a little) was incredibly distressing.

7. Not fueling or refueling properly

I put this one last because it’s often viewed as the only indicator of an eating disorder or exercise addiction. Let me be clear: there are many individuals who exhibit normal nutrition habits yet are not at peace in their bodies. What’s more, normalcy is difficult to perceive from the outside. So, just because someone (female or male!) looks like they are eating and they appear to be at a healthy body weight, they aren’t necessarily healthy. Nutrient deprivation can be hard to pinpoint, as our bodies are hardwired for survival. If the body isn’t getting enough nutrition to function, the brain will resort to a caveperson mentality (“Sick Enough,” Gaudiani). This can lead to numerous issues that are harder to spot, such as bone density loss, RED-S, depression, and anxiety.

Food is good. Your body wants and needs it. Mine certainly enjoyed this pizza last weekend!

When I was struggling immensely with exercise compulsion, my body was not receiving nearly enough nutrition to account for that. I was constantly breaking my body down, and it began to show. Even when many onlookers thought I appeared to be a thin, strong runner, I was scientifically starving. My behaviors led to multiple injuries, mental anguish, and illnesses (see #3).


So where do you go from here? If you or someone you love is exhibiting these signs, how can you find help?

First off, I am no expert, so the best place to start is to speak to one. Not every doctor is trained in eating disorders, so please keep that in mind as you begin to research. If you are the one seeking help, let others in. That has been the most impactful component of my recovery journey so fardon’t underestimate the power of community. If you are reading this with the goal of helping a loved one who has an eating disorder or exercise addiction: consider bringing up your concern—speak in love and use “I statements.” Above all—whether you are a fighter or supporter—do something.

I also recommend utilizing resources from the following organizations:

I may not be on the far side of recovery yet, but I am hopeful because I see it for the first time. Please: do not give up hope that there is healing from eating disorders and exercise addiction. And if you don’t have hope today, let me bear some of that burden with you. I can hope in your place until you are able to hope again.



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