Defining features of unhealthy exercise associated with disordered eating and eating disorder diagnoses

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Objectives:The current study sought to compare different features of unhealthy exercise on associations with disordered eating and their ability to identify individuals with eating disorders. A secondary aim of the study was to compare prevalence and overlap of different aspects of unhealthy exercise and potential differences in their gender distribution.Design:Cross-sectional epidemiological study.Methods:A community-based sample of men (n = 592) and women (n = 1468) completed surveys of health and eating patterns, including questions regarding exercise habits and eating disorder symptoms.Results:Compulsive and compensatory features of exercise were the best predictors of disordered eating and eating disorder diagnoses compared to exercise that was excessive in quantity. Further, compulsive and compensatory aspects of unhealthy exercise represented overlapping, yet distinct qualities in both men and women.Conclusions:Including the compulsive quality among the defining features of unhealthy exercise may improve identification of eating disorders, particularly in men. Results suggest that the compensatory aspect of unhealthy exercise is not adequately captured by the compulsive aspect of unhealthy exercise. Thus, interventions that target unhealthy exercise behaviors among high-risk individuals, such as athletes, may benefit from addressing both the compulsive and compensatory aspects of unhealthy exercise. Future prospective longitudinal studies will aid in determining the direction of the association between these features of unhealthy exercise and the onset of eating pathology.

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