Eating Disorders, Fitness, and Substance Abuse

By Chris Elkins

Chris Elkins is a senior writer and researcher for He writes about addiction-related topics, reports the latest news, and tells stories of recovery.

Despite the stereotype, supermodels and teenage girls trying to become what they see on magazine covers aren’t the only people who suffer from eating disorders. An estimated 20 million women and 10 men million will have a clinical eating disorder at least once in their life, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

It’s a health problem that’s more prevalent than Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia combined. It’s also one that can lead to devastating health side effects. Eating disorders can cause low heart rate, low blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart failure. Other side effects of eating disorders include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Muscle loss
  • Hair loss
  • Severe dehydration

Unfortunately, the problem commonly coexists with another widespread health problem: substance abuse and addiction. A 2003 study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that individuals with eating disorders were five times more likely than people without eating disorders to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs. An estimated 50 percent of people with eating disorders abused alcohol or other drugs.

There is no clear reason why eating disorders and substance use disorders commonly coexist. Writing in a 2008 article in Social Work Today, Adrienne Ressler with the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation speculated that people with eating disorders who are trying to lose weight may turn to illicit drugs that suppress appetite.

Eating disorders also cause harmful psychological side effects, and individuals may turn to alcohol or other drugs to relieve stress, anxiety, or depression. Conversely, alcohol and other drugs can suppress appetite, leading to the development of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders and substance abuse problems can be dangerous for people striving for physical fitness. Many fitness programs push the body to its limits. Eating and substance use disorders can cause heart problems and difficulty breathing. Rigorous exercise puts further stress on the heart and lungs, which can lead to dangerous consequences.

But exercise can be a beneficial component of recovery. It usually isn’t introduced until the initial detox phase of treatment because the body usually can’t handle the stress of a workout while overcoming withdrawal.

After the body has been freed of toxins and it’s been stabilized with a healthy diet, exercise can be a beneficial tool for preventing and recovering from addiction and eating disorders. A 2011 study published in the European Eating Disorders Review found that the positive effects of exercise on mood, self-esteem, depression, and body image can reduce the risk of eating disorders.

A 2014 analysis of 22 studies published in PLoS One found that exercise can increase abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, ease withdrawal symptoms, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. The authors concluded that aerobic and mind-body exercises are effective treatments for substance use disorders.

Since eating disorders and substance use disorders can cause heart and breathing problems that can be exacerbated by rigorous exercise, people in recovery from these diseases should exercise only with the recommendation of a physician or addiction specialist. With a medical professional’s approval, exercise is beneficial for most people in recovery.

A useful guide explaining the dangers of trivializing bulimia by Oliver Clark at Rehab Recovery.

Experiencing insomnia during your recovery? This guide by Slumber Yard explains how recovery impacts the body and sleep cycle, including specific differences between substances.  Also included is guidance for loved ones struggling to understand recovery insomnia and a printable resource guide, especially for them. Lastly, information on what science says about working through insomnia since common tips for better sleep can be ineffective or counterproductive during treatment is included.

Other great resources:

A team of researchers has been performing research on how people sleep, and they’ve collected some great information about how drug addiction and recovery can affect a person’s ability to get healthy, restorative sleep. You can read the full guide here:

Addiction can not only cause damage to your health and support system but also ruin your personal finances making it hard to bounce back after recovery. To help with this issue we created the guide, “How To Rebuild Your Finances After Rehab”, to assist those who have struggled with addiction to get themselves and their finances back on track.  Click here to get the guide.

Rehab 4 Alcoholism is another free and impartial helpline for people troubled with drug and alcohol issues.  Rehab 4 Alcoholism aims to save lives by stopping addiction before it becomes too late. Tel: 0800 111 4108 Web:

Other great resources:  Sleep help for those in recoveryDetoxRehabs.netSmoking Among College Students.

KnowYourDNA, covers the topic of the genetic component of addiction.


Cook, B. et al. (2011, May 16). Eating disorders and exercise: A structural equation modeling analysis of a conceptual model. Retrieved from

NEDA. (n.d.). Health Consequences of Eating Disorders. Retrieved from

NEDA. (n.d.). Get The Facts On Eating Disorders. Retrieved from

Ressler, A. (2008, July/August). Insatiable Hungers: Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. (2003, December). Food for Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. Retrieved from

Wang, D. et al. (2014, October 16) Impact of Physical Exercise on Substance Use Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from

KnowYourDNA covers the topic of the genetic component of addiction. 

Ways to heal your liver after alcohol abuse

Social Media Addiction? This link will show you which app is the most dangerous, if social media addiction is on the rise, and if mental health issues are increasing due to social media.

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