A new study published in the Journal of Psychiatry Research looked at changes in body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorder, and exercise addiction symptomatology during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was a longitudinal study of 319 health club users.
“The study was initially about exercise addiction, eating disorders, and body image, but when COVID-19 hit, we changed the scope to see if there were any differences pre vs post the first lockdown in the UK last spring,” lead author Mike Trott, a PhD researcher at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England told us.“We suspected that we may see an increase in eating disorder symptoms, and a decrease in exercise addiction symptoms, but were unsure of the magnitude of the results.”
Also authoring the study were James Johstone, Shahina Pardhan, Yvnonne Barnett, and Lee Smith.
In the past year since the COVID-19 pandemic was first declared by the World Health Organization in March 2020, there have been over 100,000,000 cases diagnosed in over 100 countries. Over 2,000,000 people have died from COVID-19 over the past year worldwide.
“The relationship between eating disorders and exercise addiction is the topic of my PhD,” Trott told us. “I am generally interested in mental health and physical activity, and this sub-specialty seemed perfect for my PhD thesis.”
In the United States, three per cent of the population experiences exercise addiction. Exercise addiction occurs when it interferes with someone’s social life or work. Someone with an exercise addiction feels guilty or sad if they miss a workout and will work out even if they’re injured or sick. Risk factors for exercise addiction include having an addictive personality, substance use, difficulty dealing with stress, the need to have the perfect body. Athletes are at a higher risk of developing exercise addiction.
“We already had data collected during the summer of 2019, so we contacted participants who had indicated consent to be contacted for a follow-up study in August and September 2020,” Trott told us. "Overall, we found that and exercise addiction symptoms decreased significantly. Interestingly, we found no change in body image issues.”
About nine per cent of people around the world are affected by eating disorders. Over 28 million of people in the United States will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives. A broad range of 28 to almost 75 per cent of the risk for eating disorders is due to genetics. An eating disorder is a mental illness, one of the deadliest second only to opioid overdose. Approximately ten thousand people die each year due to an eating disorder and over 25 per cent of people with an eating disorder attempt suicide. Over 64 billion dollars is the economic cost of eating disorders annually.
“The results were mostly in line with what we hypothesized,” Trott told us. “However, we might have expected to see changes in body image issues too, so this was a little surprising.”
“Practitioners should be aware that eating disorder symptoms may increase post-lockdowns,” Trott told us. “This is particularly important for people who are already vulnerable, such as people with previous eating disorders prone to relapse. Friends and family of potentially vulnerable people should try and support healthy eating behaviours as much as possible.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com