Running on empty: the rise of ‘anorexia athletica’
Anorexia athletica, the compulsive and excessive use of exercise to maintain an abnormally low body weight, is not a formally recognised mental health disorder. It is not something doctors diagnose in its own right, and when I speak to one psychologist about the condition, she declines to use the term but is happy to speak about its ramifications.
Yet look online and it’s a different story. Blogs, forums and other social platforms discuss the affliction, also known as hypergymnasia or sports anorexia. On Instagram, more than 2,000 anorexia athletica hashtags are attached to posts of people clothed in Lycra, running and holding energy shakes. On forums, others discuss anguish at missing workouts.
On myproana.com, a site for recovering anorexics and their families, one daughter laments a mother who exercises six hours a day. “She says that exercise is like breathing to her she’d suffocate without it.”
Exercise is a healthy pursuit, but problems arise when it becomes something else. When taken to extremes, it can lead to anaemia, arthritis, heart problems, memory issues, poor body development and infertility. It can even prove fatal through heart or kidney failure.
Natalie Lawrence, a mother of two from Bedfordshire, knows only too well the physical repercussions of anorexia athletica. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis, caused by an addiction to exercise.
Lawrence had been a healthy weight when she began training for a triathlon. But working out in the same gym as female gymnasts who were “absolute whippets” triggered an obsession with fitness. Within months she was waking at 5:00 am to swim 6km, then doing two three-hour sessions of running or cycling and gym work every day. She cut out all carbohydrates, employed a “half rule” where she would eat only half the meal on her plate, and occasionally became bulimic.
“I’m a driven, competitive person. It was all or nothing for me. It became quite chronic quite quickly,” she says. “I was drained, falling asleep in lectures. I lost my relationship with my long-term boyfriend. I changed, I became very insular. When I went home, my family were shocked by my weight loss. It was a cause for concern, but they assumed that was part of being an elite-level athlete and doing triathlons.”
Tests revealed she had osteopenia in her spine – caused by her extreme regimen, particularly cutting out dairy products – and the hormone levels of a prepubescent girl.
It was a wake-up call, but even now, aged 29 and working as a massage therapist, Lawrence believes the condition still has a hold on her. She exercised ferociously through both her pregnancies, competing in triathlons until about 35 weeks. “I don’t believe it ever fully leaves a person,” says Lawrence, who is married to Lee, 42, a director of a utilities company, and has two children, two-year-old Max and Dobbi, 10 months.
“It’s still there, but I am not going back to wanting to make myself ill. I don’t have the time to do that.”
A spokesman for B-eat, a charity that supports people with eating disorders, draws parallels between anorexia athletica and anorexia nervosa. “The function of this compulsive exercise is much the same as that of restriction of kilojoules – a drive to control something which gives the illusion of control in other areas of life.”
Dr Jill Owen, a sport psychologist, says platforms such as Instagram and Facebook may be encouraging hypergymnasia. “The trend on social media towards gym selfies, accompanied by the misinterpretation of inspirational quotes stressing hard work and pushing through discomfort, can fuel or reinforce the thoughts of the obsessive exerciser,” she says.
Another consultant clinical psychologist, Dr Nihara Krause, is concerned the disorder is becoming more prevalent in young athletes, and knows of schools that enforce swipe-able gym cards so that teachers can keep tabs on students who might be using sports facilities excessively.
Tina McGuff, 46, a financial analyst from Dundee, became so fixated on exercise and food that it culminated in her being sectioned and force fed in order to be kept alive. An incident on a beach at the age of 15, when she thought she saw someone pointing at her bottom suggesting it looked big, flicked a switch in the young girl’s head. As with Lawrence, her descent into anorexia athletica was swift. Soon she was rising at 5am to exercise, and running in between classes at school to burn off kilojoules. Previously, she had enjoyed gymnastics and swimming, but now she pushed her body to the limit.
“I danced until my feet bled, I ran until I was sick, I swam until I fainted and had to be pulled out of a pool toilet by an attendant who had seen me lying on the floor,” says McGuff, who has written an autobiography, Seconds to Snap, to raise awareness of anorexia athletica.
She was admitted to a psychiatric unit and taken to hospital several times throughout her early twenties as she continued to battle her dangerous addiction to exercise.
When she was 35, mentally and physically exhausted, she decided to eat an entire tub of ice cream, realising how much of her life had been controlled by “this bloody thing”, and resolved to scale back her workouts.
Today, McGuff hasn’t been into a gym in two years, is a size 14, and says she is a “much happier, more content” person as a result.
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