Problematic Exercise in Anorexia Nervosa: Testing Potential Risk Factors against Different Definitions

PLoS One. 2015 Nov 30;10(11):e0143352. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143352. eCollection 2015.


"Hyperactivity" has a wide prevalence range of 31% to 80% in the anorexia nervosa literature that could be partly due to the plethora of definitions provided by researchers in this field. The purpose of this study was two-fold: 1) To assess the variance across prevalence rates of problematic exercise encountered in patients with anorexia nervosa, in relation to seven different definitions found in the literature. 2) To examine how core eating disorder symptoms and the dimensions of emotional profile are associated with these different definitions and the impact of these definitions on the assessment of patients' quality of life. Exercise was evaluated in terms of duration, intensity, type and compulsion using a semi-structured questionnaire administered to 180 women suffering from severe anorexia nervosa. Seven different definitions of problematic exercise were identified in the literature: three entailing a single dimension of problematic exercise (duration, compulsion or intensity) and four combining these different dimensions. Emotional profile scores, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, eating disorder symptomatology, worries and concerns about body shape, self-esteem and quality of life were assessed using several established questionnaires. The prevalence of problematic exercise varied considerably from, 5% to 54%, depending on the number of criteria used for its definition. The type and level of eating disorder symptomatology was found to be associated with several definitions of problematic exercise. Surprisingly, a better self-reported quality of life was found among problematic exercisers compared to non-problematic exercisers in three of the definitions. The different definitions of problematic exercise explain the broad prevalence ranges and the conflicting associations generally reported in the literature between problematic exercise and eating disorder-related psychological parameters. There is an urgent need for a valid consensus on the definition of problematic exercise in anorexia nervosa. This will support the development of further research on the etiology and treatment of problematic exercise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anorexia Nervosa / diagnosis*
  • Anorexia Nervosa / psychology
  • Child
  • Emotions
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Self Report / standards
  • Terminology as Topic*

Grants and funding

The authors received no specific funding for this work. EVHAN study was supported by grants from the French Ministry of Health (PHRCN 2007, 2011 AOM11197; ANR Jeunechercheur, Bourse de thèse Eiffel) and from CNAM-TS, Fondation de France, Fondation MGEN,EHESP, AP-HP, CIFRE, and Contrats d’interface INSERM. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.