KU studies excessive exercise in those with eating disorders

Published: Aug. 1, 2020 at 2:41 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - A University of Kansas study is looking at excessive exercise in those with eating disorders.

The University of Kansas says for most people, working out is healthy for body and mind, however, weight loss is problematic for those living with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. It says both eating disorders are marked by negative perceptions of one’s body and a compulsive desire to lose weight.

“Excessive exercise is a behavior people with eating disorders can engage in without anybody really noticing that they’re doing something that could be harmful,” said Danielle Chapa, a doctoral student at the Center for the Advancement of Research on Eating Behaviors in the University of Kansas Department of Psychology. “With excessive-exercise behavior, people may be exercising with extreme intensity, for two or more hours, or when they have a fever or when they’re injured. Exercise can be a compulsive behavior — something they have to do. It’s problematic because it could make recovery from an eating disorder a much longer process. There’s also a lot of medical complications that go along with excessive exercise — for instance, increased susceptibility to injury.”

Chapa says with an $84,940 award from the National Institute of Mental Health, she will investigate the causes and effects of excessive exercise on those experiencing eating disorders. She says the investigation, Function of Unhealthy Exercise in Everyday Life, FuEL, represents her doctoral thesis. She says she hopes it will expand the tools available to help diagnose and treat eating disorders.

Chapa says she is recruiting 80 participants at and hopes to better understand the emotional function excessive exercise has in those living with eating disorders as well as moment to moment predictors of unhealthy exercise. She says people in the study will be prompted via smartphone to track their emotional state for one week.

“We’re interested in seeing how affect changes in relation to exercise — so we’re looking at the hours before somebody exercises,” she said. “How is their effect changing? And then in the hours after exercise, how is their effect changing?”

Champa says for a week, each participant will receive random surveys via a smartphone app every few hours.

“We want to see what their mood is at each of those surveys,” she said. “With enough surveys throughout the day, we can see how effect changes.”

Champa says to track exercise, the participants wear a research-grade activity monitor for the whole story allowing her to detect relationships between participants’ emotional states and the timing and intensity of their workouts.

“The Actigraph will collect things like number of steps that a person takes, how long a person is physically active and the level of intensity of their physical activity — if it’s moderate or vigorous,” she said. “We’ll also use that data to identify when exercise occurred in the day, because you get an exact time of exercise. We can then combine the Actigraph data with information we get from the surveys.”

According to Champa, at the end of each day, participants in the study log information regarding overall health and injuries.

Champa says she works with people experiencing eating disorders in a clinical setting apart of her doctoral work. and she hopes her study will produce data that could underpin effective interventions for excessive exercise as a follow up to her project.

“In this study, we aim to understand what triggers excessive exercise and if there are individual differences,” she said. “If we can predict when someone is going to engage in excessive exercise, then we could send them a quick text message through an app that suggests maybe they use another coping skill rather than exercising excessively. If we know what triggers excessive exercise, we can build these personalized interventions that provide additional support to persons with eating disorders throughout the day.”

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