The University Recreation Center buzzes as the skis of elliptical machines slide back and forth, punctuated by the patter of running shoes slapping the treadmill.
On the face of most machines is a calorie counter. For many people, the counter is just an optional button, like those that show yards or miles, but for others it can be part of a deep-seated compulsion that can be life-threatening.
A 2006 study for the National Eating Disorders Association found 44 percent of college students know someone who exercises at least four times a week for at least two hours at a time.
In the past few years, the condition has been increasingly diagnosed as the awareness of its existence has risen, said Diane Rubright, coordinator of STAR Center for Eating Disorders and Weight Management at McNamara Alumni Center.
Many people are familiar with the symptoms associated with eating disorders but are unaware that over-exercise can also be a factor.
It’s a condition sometimes referred to as “exercise bulimia,” but that term can also apply to people who show symptoms of other eating disorders, Rubright said.
Bulimia is a disorder that, because of an exaggerated fear of weight gain, can cause people to eat excessively, then vomit or use other measures to get rid of the calories, Rubright said.
Overexercise can develop in tandem with other purging strategies or all by itself.
“There are a lot of grey areas in eating disorders,” said Christine Twait, a Boynton Health Service nutritionist.
These disorders, which often go untreated, can lead to permanent injury or death.
Common health effects of eating disorders include the loss of menstruation in females, swelling of facial glands and potassium deprivation that can lead to heart failure, Gary Remafedi, a University pediatrics professor, said.
Someone with an eating disorder is already in a weakened state from lack of food. Adding over-exercising can result in physical injuries like stress fractures or osteoporosis, he said.
A survey released by Boynton last year said 21 percent of University students with eating disorders report that it negatively affects their academic performance.
Overexercise is often overlooked as a component of eating disorders because exercise is seen as an admirable activity, especially in a culture where there are so many pressures to be thin, Twait said.
“Exercise is definitely the most socially acceptable way to purge,” she said. For this reason, it can slip under the radar of people who would notice more drastic purging behavior.
The term “purge” means to get rid of excess calories, Twait said.
The difference between overexercisers and people who just work out is that overexercisers will feel compelled to exercise, Twait said.
“If you are continuing to exercise even when you’re injured, and even when it’s not good for you, that’s taking it to an extreme and can lead to a problem,” she said.
Although the University Recreation Center has no official policy on overexercising, they enforce 30-minute limits on exercise machines Annette Biggs, the fitness director, said in an e-mail. They handle each instance of overexercise on an individual basis, she said.
Outright intervention by gym workers can sometimes make the situation worse said Joy Nollenberg, the executive director and founder of the Joy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for people with eating disorders.
“If they kick someone out of one gym they’ll just go to another,” said Nollenberg, who is also a University alumna.
She suggests that gyms could do more to limit overexercising by increasing the training of employees and educational resources.
“The most helpful thing would be to educate people about exercise and the detrimental effects of overexercise,” she said.