Excessive and obsessive exercise is very harmful to health, particularly for people suffering from eating disorders, according to a study which has uncovered for the first time the psychological mechanisms behind “exercise addiction”.
The study, published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, revealed that persons with eating disorders use exercise to regulate depressive mood and negative thoughts which may turn into an “addiction” and cause illness.
Using electronic diaries, the researchers including those from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, recorded the experiences and daily life behaviour of 29 patients with eating disorders, and 35 healthy controls.
“With these electronic diaries, we studied the dynamic interaction of physical exercise and psychological variables in everyday life,” explained study co-author Markus Reichert from KIT.
Using this method, the researchers could specifically request subjective self-reports from the participants in case of conspicuous exercise episodes, and generate large quantities of data needed for the study.
“The main idea consists in the fact that we have to study the human species in its natural habitat in order to understand human behaviour,” said study co-author Ulrich Ebner-Priemer from KIT.
According to the study, the physical activity of the participants were recorded constantly by a movement sensor for a period of seven days.
The accelerometer was connected via Bluetooth technology to a smartphone, and they said an app triggered requests for reports when measurements were below or above certain activity thresholds.
The participants were also asked to report their subjective state of condition before and after exercise.
Patients with eating disorders, the scientists said, exercised after they experienced declining mood.
This effect was not found for healthy controls, who felt full of energy prior to exercise, they said.
After exercise, the study noted, patients with eating disorders had a better mood than the healthy controls and in their average mood, they felt more relaxed, and less pressure of having to be slim.
They were more satisfied with their body but this effect, the researchers said, persisted for a limited period of time ranging from one to three hours depending on the test person.
According to the study, people with eating disorders use exercise to regulate depressive moods and negative thoughts relating to their eating disorders.
“To cope with difficult emotional states and negative body experience, they get exercise, probably also due to lacking alternative strategies at such times,” Reichert explained.
The researchers said the positive effects of exercise lead people with eating disorders towards more physical activity, and the need for this feeling make them want to exercise again when the effect declines.
“This may result in a vicious circle, in which more and more exercise is needed to feel good,” said Almut Zeeck study co-author from the University of Freiburg in Germany.
The researchers said the findings have major implications for therapy to positively influence the mood and body experience of people suffering from eating disorders.
“This opens up new perspectives for therapeutic interventions that reach patients in their everyday life, and may represent an important supplement to ambulatory psychotherapy,” Zeeck said.