Associated behaviours

There are additional problems and behaviours that are often associated with eating disorders. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the following, whether there is presence of an eating disorder or not, always seek medical advice. We recommend you contact your GP as soon as possible, or if you feel you or someone you care about is in immediate danger, call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.

Compulsive exercising

Although not classified as a mental illness, compulsive (or excessive) exercising often accompanies an eating disorder and can cause significant mental and physical health consequences.

For those living with anorexia or bulimia, compulsive exercise may be a feature of their illness and used as a compensatory behaviour to eliminate unwanted calories. This may or may not be in conjunction with other negative compensatory behaviours such as purging or laxative abuse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with compulsive exercising, even if there are no other eating disorder related behaviours present, it is important to seek help and support from a GP.

Signs of compulsive exercising
  • Exercise that is used solely to ‘burn off’ or eliminate calories consumed
  • Maintaining a rigid and very intense regime of exercise despite any other factors such as illness, injury, or fatigue
  • Exercising to a point that frequently interferes with other activities or priorities, for example frequently missing social occasions to exercise
  • Using exercise to ‘earn’ permission to eat, or exercising for specific amounts of time in relation to how much food has been consumed
  • Feeling guilty if unable to exercise
  • Cutting back on food intake if unable to exercise
  • Persistent muscle soreness
  • Unable to rest sufficiently between exercise sessions, and/or feeling uncomfortable with rest
  • Exercising in secret or being overly hard on oneself in terms of achieving goals
  • Using exercise for managing difficult emotions
Symptoms of compulsive exercising
  • Osteoporosis (loss of bone density) resulting in increased risk of fractures or stress fractures
  • Periods may stop or become irregular
  • Increased injuries or poor recovery between sessions
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Increased risk of respiratory infections
  • Bradycardia (lowered resting heart rate)

If you are concerned about the amount you or a loved one is exercising, it is important to speak to a GP who will be able to help you talk through what is happening and review what support or help might be needed. Due to potential longer-term complications of excessive exercising such as osteoporosis, do seek help as soon as you can.


Self-harm is intentional self-injury or putting oneself at the risk of harm as a way of coping with very difficult feelings or experiences. The person affected may find it hard to express their feelings in words, may feel the need to express their pain physically or see it as a method of control over feelings. There are many different types of self-harm including cutting, hitting and biting, hair pulling, engaging in risky behaviours, e.g., unsafe sex, or deliberately getting into fights where there is a high risk of injury. However, sufferers may also over or under eat or exercise excessively and studies show a link between the incidence of eating disorders and self-harm.

Self-harm is often misunderstood, and the person may unfairly be labelled as an ‘attention-seeker’. In fact, rather than being manipulative the sufferer is experiencing very distressing emotions and is unsure of how to cope with or express them.

Signs of self-harm
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises or burns on areas of the body that can more easily be covered – wrists, arms, chest, upper legs

  • Insistence on wearing longer sleeved clothing or trousers etc., even in hot weather 

  • Exercising excessively

  • Over or under eating, or showing patterns of behaviour that indicate problems with eating normally, such as refusing to eat in front of others, bingeing episodes, restriction

  • Low self-esteem

Symptoms of self-harm
  • Scarring from cuts or burns

  • Broken bones or areas of missing hair

  • Anxiety, depression and feelings of guilt, shame or disgust that are likely to increase over time

  • Emotional instability or numbing

  • Persistent low self-esteem, social withdrawal, and self-isolation

  • Increased risk of infections (at site of injury)

  • Increased risk of accidental death or suicide

Self-harm can cause some very serious injuries and can increase the risk of suicide or accidental death. It is therefore vital professional help is sought straight away and your GP is the first port of call. However, if you/your loved one feel in immediate danger of harm or significant injury do not wait to see a GP, instead call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.

Laxative abuse

Laxative abuse occurs when someone uses them to specifically influence or control weight and to eliminate unwanted calories. For example, those suffering with bulimia or binge eating disorder may feel laxatives can offer them a way to compensate for the calories they have consumed.

In reality, the food, and therefore the calories consumed, will have been absorbed by the digestive system before the laxative can take effect and therefore have little to no impact on calorie consumption. 

What’s more, the impact of frequent misuse of laxatives can have some potentially serious effects including:

  • Essential electrolyte and mineral imbalances that can affect the normal functioning of organs including the heart, nerves, muscles, kidneys etc
  • Vision problems, dehydration, fainting, muscular tremors, and weakness
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, digestive, and colon issues

Laxative abuse should always be taken seriously. Consult your GP in the first instance, or if you are already under the care of an eating disorder team or service, be sure to talk to them about the problems you are experiencing. Please remember, they are there to help you.

Are you worried that you, or a loved one may have an eating disorder? Our Peer Support Team have lived experiences of eating disorders and recovery.

To talk to someone who understands, book a 1:1 support call, we’re here to help.

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