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Dangers of Pro Ana Workouts

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Pro Ana is a culture designed to promote and support anorexia nervosa.  Pro Ana workouts are dangerous and even deadly exercise routines designed to try to change the body of someone with anorexia. 

The body changes often sought out in pro ana workouts include: 

  • Losing weight 
  • Targeting what the person with anorexia deems as a “target area” to be toned
  • “Bulking up” 
  • Fitting into certain clothing sizes. 

For some people, pro ana workouts can be used as a way to self-harm.  

Working out with anorexia can be very dangerous and have long-term impacts on the body.  

What Is A Pro Ana Workout? 

Pro Ana workouts include any workout routine that will take place with insufficient fueling in effort to 

Signatures of pro ana workouts include: 

  • Exercising while fasting
  • Improper refueling
  • Insufficient carbohydrate intake to support workout
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Insufficient total energy intake

Energy deficits often seen in pro ana workouts can impair performance, growth, reproductive health, and overall health. 

Common Risks With Pro Ana Exercise 

Pro ana exercise can have extremely negative health impacts on your  body.  For women, one common risk with pro ana exercise is development of the female athlet triad. 

Characteristics of female athlete triad include: 

For women that have not had a menstrual cycle for six months, a dexa scan may be necessary to rule out permanent loss of bone mass.

Men engaging in pro ana exercise will also have a loss of bone mineral density. 

Other risks of pro- ana exercise include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Dangerously low blood sugars could result in fainting, coma or death
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Injury
  • Decreased immune function 
  • Hair loss 
  • Muscle wasting 
  • Feeling cold constantly 
  • Long dark hair growth on the body
  • Difficulty maintaining social relationships 
  • Sexual dysfunction 
  • Inadequate hydration could lead to heat illnesses, electrolyte imbalances or death

Many people might not think that the impacts of exercising while malnourished are that bad.  However, it’s important to recognize that decreased bone mineral density could not just mean injury, but your spine collapsing on itself leading to a hunched back. 

It could mean the inability to have children for women long term. 

There are many negative impacts from pro ana exercise that may never be able to be reversed. 

infographic on the dangers of pro ana workouts

How To Stop Compulsive Exercise 

Compulsive exercise is common among people with eating disorders including anorexia and atypical anorexia. It is commonly associated with pro ana workout routines. 

Compulsive exercise is when we feel we need to: 

  • Exercise to earn our food or because we experience food guilt 
  • Burn a certain number of calories per day 
  • Be in a constant calorie deficit through exercise 
  • Exercise a certain number of hours per day 
  • Go to extreme lengths to cut fat and increase lean body mass 

Decreasing or stopping exercise entirely may be one of the first interventions in anorexia recovery.  

Steps that will help us stop compulsive exercise include: 

  1. Stop counting calories. Both with food and calories burned durin exercise. 
  2. Get rid of pedometers and exercise tracking apps 
  3. Track your exercise habits. Begin to decrease your exercise. 
  4. Stop body checking 
  5. Practice joyful movement  when you are at a point in recovery to begin exercise again 

If you have been engaging in compulsive exercise or pro ana workouts, it’s critical you work with your doctor, therapist, and eating disorder dietitian to help you on your recovery journey. 

Hydration and Pro Ana Workouts

Other risks of exercising and anorexia include improper hydration.  

Because people with anorexia are often exercising on a calorie deficit, they also may be over or under-hydrated.  

Overhydration is just as dangerous as underhydration when it comes to exercise. People exercising with anorexia are at risk for 

  • Hyponatremia (overhydration which can cause dangerous or deadly electrolyte shifts in the body)
  • Hypernatremia (under hydration which can also cause heat illness or electrolyte shifts)

Because someone with anorexia is not getting in enough nutrition throughout the day, properly hydrating can be very difficult.  

You should not presume just because you are drinking a lot of water you are not at risk for improper hydration during exercise.  

What Does Exercise In Anorexia Do To The Body Long Term

Long-term energy deprivation and physical exertion can have many negative impacts on the body.  Some of the things that a pro ana exercise can do to your body long term include

  • Infertility
  • Fractures 
  • Osteoporosis 
  • Heart Failure
  • Kidney Failure 
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies 
infographic in pink with pink flower on how to stop compulsively exercising

Should I stop Exercising If I Have Anorexia? 

Yes.  

You should not be exercising if you have anorexia or are in anorexia recovery. It’s important to understand that anorexia nervosa is a complex disease and how you decrease your exercise routine will need to be something discussed with your healthcare team. 

For some people, significantly reducing exercise may be the start to the plan in anorexia recovery.  For others, the plan may be to increase food intake before significantly reducing exercise.  

Every person will vary, but it is important to note that decreasing or stopping exercise is critical in anorexia recovery. 

If you are looking for support in how others have overcome the urge to compulsively exercise in anorexia, check out these eating disorder recovery books. 


Knowing how to tell someone you have an eating disorder can also be very difficult, but having the right support is key to recovery.

© 2022 Peace and Nutrition

 
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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!