According to the Eating Disorder Foundation, as many as 46 percents of 10-year-old girls are on a diet, fear to get fat, or are binge eating and there is an increasing number of women in their thirties, forties, and fifties with eating disorders. Our society portrays beauty as a thin, young woman and as a result, individuals are dieting and exercising excessively to the point it is consuming their lives and creating low self-esteem and medical complications. The anorexia definition highlighting the subtype anorexia athletica (sports anorexia) also referred to, as hypergymnasia is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with exercise to lose weight or prevent oneself from gaining weight. Although not formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as an official eating disorder, anorexia athletica is still recognized as a severe problem associated with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia athletica often accompanies anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa as a form of getting rid of calories after a binge. Instead of purging in the way of self-induced vomiting or diuretic/laxative abuse, individuals will exercise in extreme conditions or for excessively long hours to the point it becomes a compulsive obligation without any enjoyment or benefits. Running eight miles on the treadmill followed by an hour on the elliptical and an hour of weight training is considered a typical workout for an individual with anorexia athletica.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia athletica

Although there is no specific diagnostic criterion for anorexia athletica, the signs and symptoms are centered on excessive exercise and the obsession with weight and body image. Since this disorder is often associated with anorexia or bulimia nervosa, signs and symptoms usually correlate with the specific eating disorder anorexia athletica is associated with. The following are general symptoms related to anorexia athletica:

  • Excessive exercise
  • Obsessive thoughts and behaviors with calories, fat, body image, and weight
  • Self-worth is based on physical performance
  • Enjoyment of sports and activity is diminished or non-existent
  • Denying that excessive exercise is a problem

Complications from anorexia athletica

Excessive exercise can lead to physical trauma on the body due to continual overuse without adequate nutritional and caloric intake. Bone and muscle injuries such as torn ligaments and fractures are commonly diagnosed in individuals with this disorder.  Other medical complications include arthritis, cardiovascular complications and renal and liver failure secondary to malnourishment.

Causes and treatment for anorexia athletica

Like other eating disorders, there is no single cause for anorexia athletica, but instead, there are multiple underlying factors associated with this unhealthy behavior. The American Psychological Association (APA) has shown that past abuse or trauma, low self-esteem, bullying, poor parental relationships, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, non-suicidal self-injury disorder (NSSI), a perfectionistic personality, difficulty communicating negative emotions, and difficulty resolving conflicts. Genetics are known underlying triggers that contribute to the development of an eating disorder and most also contribute to unhealthy behaviors such as anorexia athletica. Depending on the severity of the disorder, treatment consists of outpatient or inpatient psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) and nutritional counseling. These types of approaches help the individual recognize their underlying triggers and develop awareness and healthy coping skills in order to successfully combat their eating disorder.