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How To Work Out When Recovering From Anorexia Athletica


min read


There are two forms of the eating disorder known as Anorexia. Usually, when we think of this condition, we think of Anorexia Nervosa, however Anorexia Athletica is its other form. Anorexia is recognized by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) as an eating disorder, and while Anorexia Athletica is not yet recognized as its own distinct version of this illness, it is a well-known and often used term within the mental health sector.

How Is Anorexia Athletica Different From Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Athletica is characterized by disordered behavior patterns that center around obsessive and excessive exercise. This is in contrast with Anorexia Nervosa which primarily focuses on weight and food.

Anorexia Athletica is sometimes known as Sports Anorexia, Hypergymnasia or even Compulsive Exercise. It is seen in people of all ages and from all walks of life, although it is most frequently observed in serious athletes playing sports which emphasize a petite or lean body type.

Unlike people with Anorexia Nervosa, those suffering from the Athletica form of the eating disorder don’t tend to focus on the way they look. Instead, their focus is purely on their athletic performance. Usually, they measure their own self-worth through comparisons with successful competitors within their sporting field.

The Problems With Detecting Anorexia Athletica

A major problem with diagnosing someone with Anorexia Athletica lies in the fact that exercise is supposed to be good for us.

This makes it difficult for doctors to pinpoint the difference between an unhealthy and a healthy pattern of exercise. However, those suffering from Anorexia Athletica will spend considerably more time working out than necessary for their athletic performance or health and well-being. In fact, they will continue to work out even if they are injured or sick.

People with chronic emotional problems such as depression, poor self-esteem and anxiety are more at risk of developing Anorexia Athletica. This is also the case with Anorexia Nervosa, and some of the symptoms are quite similar. For example, both forms of the condition see the obsessive preoccupation acting as a coping mechanism or outlet for emotional issues. However, there are other symptoms which are specific to the Athletica form of the condition, and these include:

  • A long-term preoccupation with working out and exercise
  • A weight loss of more than 5 percent of their body weight
  • Feelings of anxiety or guilt for not following a self-imposed exercise regime
  • Exercising rather than going to school or work
  • Working out even when injured or ill
  • Feeling isolated while working out
  • Lying to others about how much or how often they work out
  • Only thinking about food in terms of its relationship with exercise
  • Basing own self-worth on how much exercise has been completed every day
  • Blaming weight loss on exercise and training necessary to stay competitive within chosen sporting field as a way of hiding the condition

If somebody obsessively exercises on a daily basis, their body has no opportunity to heal, recover and rest. Overtraining syndrome causes many problems including:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Reduced athletic performance
  • Increased risks of injury
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Lost muscle mass
  • Osteoporosis
  • Damaged joints, tendons, ligaments and cartilage
  • Heart irregularities

It’s clear from all of these symptoms and risks that it’s important to get professional help for anyone suffering from Anorexia Athletica, and there is medical support available for those who are ready to get better. However, what happens for those in recovery from this eating disorder when the time comes to start exercising again? How can they work out safely while in recovery without falling back into the trap of their eating disorder once more?

The Early Stages Of Recovery

Usually, the formal treatment given to those suffering from both forms of Anorexia involves minimizing physical activity so that all calories the individual consumes will support the restoration of their weight and their nutritional rehabilitation. Experts also maintain that avoiding exercise during this early recovery period is important to avoid the psychological damage which could be caused by carrying on the obsessive compulsive elements of this disorder.

While this makes sense, it’s also important to recognize that at some stage of recovery, a healthier relationship needs to be established with activity and movement. It’s impossible to simply abstain from all physical activities after recovering from an eating disorder, and indeed it wouldn’t be desirable to do so since staying active is a key part of being fit and well in the long term. So, how do you manage to adhere to sensible guidelines on physical activity without becoming obsessed with working out once more?

Asking The Right Questions

The lines that divide unnecessary and necessary movement can be difficult to see clearly, and this means that those in recovery from Anorexia Athletica need to ask themselves the right questions when it comes to physical activity levels during recovery:

  • What kind of activity, sport or exercise is most and least likely to be harmful or helpful?
  • Where does the boundary lie between optional and functional exercise, and what risks or benefits exist of doing either?
  • How do the psychological and physiological benefits and risks compare?

By defining the answers to these questions, it’s possible to determine the right level of physical activity during the recovery period. However, there are other factors to bear in mind that we’ll take a closer look at here.

Is Exercise Healthy For Someone Recovering From Anorexia Athletica?

When someone exercises excessively, their body endures severe physical stress. This results in hormonal dysfunctions, an adverse effect on body composition, negative impacts on metabolism and the physiological consequences that all of this brings. However, once the sufferer has undergone nutritional rehabilitation and are intaking a sufficient amount of food, the effect of any physical activity will be much more positive. Therefore, as long as someone in recovery from Anorexia Athletica is eating well, has restored their bodyweight and has a normal hormonal physiology, in physiological terms, working out is advisable and safe for them.

Exercise even offers some positive health benefits for those whose body has suffered as a result of an eating disorder. When someone exercises excessively while malnourished, their bone health deteriorates, with osteoporosis being a serious risk and the chance of fractures increasing. Once their nutrition has improved, however, and they have returned to a normal bodyweight, all forms of exercise actually improves bone density, helping to reverse some of the damage caused by Anorexia Athletica.

Once someone has restored their body weight after suffering from Anorexia Athletica, they may also find that taking some exercise improves their mental health. Exercise is known to release endorphins which are feel-good hormones in the brain. This helps to stave off the anxiety and depression which can co-occur alongside eating disorders, helping to improve quality of life and boost recovery in the long-term.

How Much Exercise Is Too Much?

Since it seems clear that once someone who is in recovery from Anorexia Athletica can benefit from taking some physical exercise once their bodyweight has been restored and once they are properly nourished again, the next question is how much exercise is too much?

Lying in bed while you’re waiting for your bodyweight to be restored is certainly a bad idea, but so is plunging right back into a high-intensity workout schedule once you’ve been given the green light to start exercising. This is why doctors suggest that moving during the process of becoming nutritionally restored is important to ensure recovery is sustainable. Some experts believe that if people are forbidden from any kind of physical activities, inadvertently, the disordered perception may be exaggerated that the only reason for exercising is to guard against weight gain and burn calories. This can end up emphasizing the link between weight, calorie intake and exercise which only reinforces the beliefs that have perpetuated the eating disorder in the first place.

The key to success, therefore, lies in slowly increasing the amount of movement added into the individual’s daily schedule. Activities like free weights, walking and yoga are the best choice as a starting point for returning to exercise, but it’s important to have rest days between periods of exercise. With this in mind, here are some top tips to finding the right balance and making peace with physical exercise during recovery.

Top Tips For Exercising Safely During Recovery

  • The first piece of advice that can be given to those who are trying to exercise safely during their recovery from Anorexia Athletica is to let go of all those old beliefs about diet and exercise. It can only be building up a new relationship with physical activity that a healthy attitude can be adopted.
  • Bringing curiosity into your exercise regime. Try some new fun physical activities rather than sticking to the same old routine that you used when you were in the throes of your eating disorder. Try something you’ve never tried before such as ice skating or rock climbing rather than heading straight to the gym and hitting the treadmill. By varying your activities, you can avoid getting stuck in the rut that exacerbated your condition.
  • Listen to what your body has to say. If you feel tired, stop. If you feel unwell, don’t work out.
  • Establish a safety net. You can benefit from having structure to your exercise regime. Set yourself a maximum amount of activity time and stick to it. 20 minutes per day or one hour 2 times a week is quite enough in the first year of your recovery.
  • Be truthful with yourself. If you’re finding it difficult to control your impulse to exercise excessively while you’re in recovery, acknowledge it and seek advice from your therapist or treatment team. It’s important to accept the help that you are offered but you can only do this by admitting that there is still a problem to be overcome. Hiding away from the issue or pretending that everything is fine is a surefire way to sabotage your recovery.

Preventing Exercise From Being Obsessive

When you’re in recovery from Anorexia Athletica, it’s important to be able to take responsibility for yourself and your own well-being. That means being honest with yourself about the purpose of your exercise. Are you working out because you feel you have to or because you actually want to? If you feel as if you’re obliged to worm out, it’s time to stop. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to get used to that feeling in order to break your addiction. The feeling of guilt when you don’t exercise can be hard to overcome but with the right support, you can get through it. Using distraction techniques can be helpful. Finding hobbies and activities which don’t involve exercise such as DIY, art or learning a musical instrument are all useful alternatives to add into your life.

Staying Successful In Recovery

Nutritionist | Anorexia Athletica | The Meadowglade

You can successfully recover from Anorexia Athletica and keep exercise as part of your life as long as you take the right precautions and accept the professional support that you are offered. It’s important to remember, though, that you mustn’t exercise until your doctor has cleared you to do so. This won’t happen until you have reached a healthy bodyweight and until your nutritional intake has returned to normal. If you ignore your doctor’s instructions and start exercising too soon, you could cause yourself even more physical harm not to mention delaying or even preventing your long-term recovery.

By staying truthful to yourself and analysing your reasons behind exercising in recovery, you have the best chance of still being able to reap the benefits that physical activity brings without falling back into the eating disorder trap. Keep a check on your motivations for working out and stop (or seek help) if you find that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Try introducing some non-physical activities and hobbies into your life to distract you from the compulsion to hit the gym, and remember to introduce sporting activities slowly and steadily into your life rather than plunging straight back in.

Follow these top tips, and you’ll have the best chance of a full and healthy recover from Anorexia Athletica.

If you’re looking for help getting on the road to recovering from Anorexia Athletica, you have options. The Meadowglade is a luxurious facility in Southern California that is well and widely known for its team’s dedication to helping people recover from eating disorders. If you’d like to learn more about how our facility can help you, reach out today!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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