Exercise can be a healthy habit, but when done compulsively it can be a sign of an eating disorder

Exercise can be a healthy habit, but when done compulsively it can be a sign of an eating disorder
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

Lili Mooney is a regular at her local running group, but as she ties her shoes for one of her weekly runs, she admits her relationship with exercise hasn’t always been positive.

She developed an unhealthy association with food at 12 years old, and it was her intensifying running routine that masked an underlying eating disorder.

“I did start to use running and exercise in general as a way of controlling my guilty feelings when it came to eating,” Ms Mooney said.

Now 29, Ms Mooney was formally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and excessive exercise when she was 15.

She was initially treated as an out-patient, and then was in and out of the Canberra Hospital for about five years.

“When I was diagnosed with anorexia, I wasn’t allowed to run anymore,” Ms Mooney said.

“I used to just go out and walk for hours and just do these bizarre exercises in secret.

“I’m not sure they did anything, but it was purely about just controlling that voice in my head telling me that I had to do X, Y, Z because I’d eaten X, Y, Z.”

Compulsive exercise a common sign of anorexia

The behaviour and symptoms Ms Mooney describes are not unusual in people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Research from the University of Sydney in 2014 said about 50 to 80 per cent of people who experience anorexia nervosa also experience excessive or compulsive exercise.

People who depend on exercise are four times more likely to also experience an eating disorder, compared to the general population, according to the Journal of Eating Disorders.

The Butterfly Foundation’s Head of Prevention Danni Rowlands said those figures had likely worsened with the increased use of social media.

“We are seeing a lot of overexercising behaviours being celebrated and being put in the bracket of being disciplined or a person with willpower,” Ms Rowlands said.

“When people are exercising and training through injuries, through illness, when you can’t have a day off, all of these things are being promoted and pushed in lots of different arenas.

“If somebody is trying to have a rest day, and they’re seeing content [on social media] that is saying ‘move’…that obviously can be very triggering.”

Two teenagers and their parents stand outside in running gear near a Park Run sign.
Lili Mooney’s family joins her at park runs.(Supplied)

The joy of running again

After recovering from her eating disorder, Ms Mooney began running again.

While she admits it initially brought up her traumatic past, it’s since helped with maintaining positive mental health.

“My mum – who I think joined me because she didn’t want me to get in any habits of exercising obsessively alone again – started to run as well,” Ms Mooney said.

“We both enjoyed it so much that she told me about park run… and I think we’ve been every weekend since.

“Obviously I enjoy running and pushing myself, but it’s really the friendships that keep me going back and keep me getting up in the cold Canberra mornings.”

Lili smiles, at the front of a large group of people also smiling, in running gear.
Lili Mooney says she has made strong friendships in her running group.(ABC News: Anthea Moodie)

Ms Rowlands said exercise – in all forms – was a positive tool to support mental health, but every person is different in their recovery.

“We need people to be checking in with themselves and making sure that they are the ones deciding when exercise happens… rather than exercise controlling them,” she said.

“It’s just making sure, particularly in recovery or post an eating disorder, that that person is checking in regularly with the relationship they’re having with exercise.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *