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Trading Cardio for Calories: Exercise as an Eating Disorder

By Edited Jul 22, 2016 0 0
Cardio Equipment
Credit: Photo by: www.localfitness.com.au

Most People Consider Their Body

One does not need to be involved in the health and wellness industry to stumble upon various conversations about fat loss. As quickly as people casually discuss the weather, they will dialogue about their diet or exercise efforts. Practically everyone has goals for their physique—whether to improve or maintain it—and therefore, practically everyone is conscious of what they think they ought to be doing in regards to diet and exercise.

Many People Have Bad Information

Yet as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, I have become particularly magnetic for such conversations. It is common that immediately after hearing that I am an experienced strength, nutrition, and fat loss coach, people will mention their diet and exercise routines to me and ask for help or guidance. I often hear the same erroneous claims about one methodology or another, and sometimes I die inside a little bit. Why? Because these claims are frequently so culturally rooted and ignorantly affirmed that people become emotionally attached to them. At that point, educating people is not merely a matter of correcting them but rather utterly obliterating major habits and opinions in their life—habits and opinions they got from a Google search or an infomercial, or because someone with an admirable body fat percentage told them so.

Many People Have Bad Habits

In this article, I would like to challenge an idea that I hear commonly. How often have you heard people say something along the lines of, “That cake was so good! I need to go run a few miles and burn it off!”? Granted, most people will not actually invest the time to go restore their caloric balance, but some do, and the idea is there in either case. The truth is, many people attempt to maintain body weight or body composition in this manner as a lifestyle.[3]

On the surface, this makes sense—if our goal is to maintain a caloric deficit, and we veer off course with a cheat meal, then we need to reestablish the caloric deficit through exercise, right? Perhaps not, and I would suggest that in some cases, when this is part of one’s daily routine, it is quite possibly a form of bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is a serious disorder in which an individual eats more food than they believe they should have, and then try “to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way.”[1] This includes “purging” methods such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, diuretics, or enemas, but also “non-purging” methods like fasting or excessive exercise. This is where we must be careful to define what “excessive exercise” is for different people, and when it becomes disorderly. The CDC recommends 2.5–5 hours of weekly exercise for adults.[2] This is probably an excellent guideline, but is my own regime excessive because it takes 8–10 hours each week? I would say not, and I’ll explain why.

Excessive Exercise Versus Strategic Exercise

I’m an orderly, organized person. I like things where they belong, and I like things straight and tidy. Because of this, people are often quick to accuse me of having obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, at least a few of the things I learned in my Abnormal Psychology class stuck with me, and I share them with people when their accusations are more than jest: 

            • A large percentage of people have compulsions

            • A large percentage of people have obsessions

            • A tiny percentage of people have obsessive-compulsive disorder

            • “Disorders” inhibit your quality of life

For my 8–10 hours of exercise to be on point, I’ve made sure my weekly calories, nutrition, sleep, and lifestyle compliment that. In a subjective sense, nothing is inhibiting my quality of life because I’m happy, strong, healthy, and peaceful—a result of my strategic exercise plan. However, if I were eating more than I had planned, and compensating, not with a proper diet or self-discipline, but rather by increasing my exercise to take more time than I had planned, I would now be sacrificing my peace of mind and my time. When this sacrifice becomes a constant part of my life, and brings guilt, frustration, or stagnation with it, I believe it is time to consider just how much it is inhibiting my quality of life. When I’m regularly adding in more exercise than I planned or enjoy, I might be doing excessive exercise.

Exercise Bulimia

It will be up to the individual to examine themselves and determine if the cycles of eating and exercise in their life are disorderly or not. If you have peace and happiness about an intentional balance between eating and exercise, then you may be right on track. But if you’re struggling with guilt, depression, irritation, or frustration because of your eating habits, be careful of how you’re handling it, especially if it’s inhibiting your quality of life.

Solutions and Help

If you feel like you are living with a disorder, seek help.  Most importantly, don’t put yourself down if your self-discipline fails. It can be hard to control your cravings, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that unless you refuse to get help. If you can’t solve the problem privately with introspection, don’t jeopardize your health and happiness by stubbornly resisting support.

Whether you want to lose fat, gain muscle, both, or neither, you just need to strategically set up guidelines for your nutrition and exercise. This article is not intended to describe the nuances of diet and exercise programming, but rather to challenge the reader to consider if the exercise they participate in, is healthy physically and mentally. The short guide to reaching your goals is this: achieve caloric deficit, surplus, or equilibrium through an intentional balance of diet and exercise. Stay happy and healthy by supporting that balance with sleep, good nutrition, and a good attitude.



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  1. "Bulimia nervosa." Mayo Clinic. 8/06/2014 <Web >
  2. "How much physical activity do adults need?." Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 8/06/2014 <Web >
  3. "The Cardio Trap - Are You Doing Too Much Cardio Exercise?." Shape Fit. 8/06/2014 <Web >

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