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Exercise and Eating Disorders

Exercise & Eating Disorders

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious psychiatric illness resulting in extreme concerns and distorted beliefs about weight, shape, food and body image. Eating disorders can affect individuals of any gender, age, size and race. It is estimated around 9% of Australians are reported to be living with an eating disorder, and this figure is likely to be even higher due to under-reporting. Compulsive exercise engagement occurs in up to 80% of individuals with an eating disorder and is associated with poorer outcomes.

Identifying negative exercise patterns

Negative exercise behaviour can include, but is not limited to:

  • Covert exercise (completing strenuous activities in secret).
  • Compulsive exercise (irrational, repeated and aimless exercise beyond requirements of what is considered safe).
  • Over-exercising (too much with too little rest).
  • Exercising with poor hydration or energy intake.
  • Excessive exercise that isn’t motivated by pleasure or enjoyment, with the only motivating factors to lose weight or burn off calories.
  • Feelings of guilt and anxiety if missing sessions or not exercising enough.
  • Exercise that consumes ones’ life (outside of an elite sporting context).

The role of Accredited Exercise Physiologists  

Forbidding or abstaining from exercise can actually do more harm than good, and often has the opposite affect to what is intended by promoting covert exercise or cycles of binge exercise. Instead, evidence is now suggesting (in addition to appropriate psychology and nutrition support) a reintroduction to healthy movement via exercise therapy.

Exercise Physiologists are qualified exercise professionals and are well positioned to provide this support by:

  • Listening to the patients’ story and evaluating all aspects to determine appropriate intervention.
  • Developing specific, individualised and safe exercise goals.
  • Referring and liaising with other medical and allied health practitioners.
  • Finding a healthy balance between physical activity and nutritional intake.
  • Helping weight restoration by prescribing an appropriate type, level and intensity of exercise.

When delivered by appropriate exercise professionals, exercise therapy and education has the potential to increase safe exercise engagement, promote healthy weight gain, enhance vital organ function, improve quality of life, increase bone mineral density, promote positive self-esteem and build healthy exercise habits.


Exercise & Mental Health eBook by Exercise & Sports Science Australia
Exercise-Based Interventions for Mental Illness by Brendon Stubbs & Simon Rosenbaum