An exploration of the personal and psychosocial influences of compulsive exercise and bulimia nervosa using creative nonfiction storytelling


A common component of eating disorders is compulsive exercise, an obsessive need to exercise at all costs. However, there is a lack of understanding of how compulsive exercise is developed, experienced, and resolved, often overlooking the social and cultural factors. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore the complex interplay of personal and sociocultural factors that influenced the lived experiences of individuals with bulimia nervosa and compulsive exercise. Four women aged 18 to 30, who had been clinically diagnosed with bulimia nervosa and self-identified as having compulsive exercise, were recruited. Four narrative interviews were conducted with each participant to allow for an in-depth exploration of lifelong experiences, attitudes, and behaviours around eating, exercise, and body. Each interview focused on a different time period: an overview of their life, childhood and adolescence, diagnosis and treatment, and current day. The analysis included a thematic narrative analysis and creative nonfiction narratives. Thematic narrative themes included identity, (lack of) control, loneliness, cultural expectations, and societal body ideals. We created two creative nonfiction stories that depict the narrative themes, through the tales of Amber and Carley. Both stories are first-person accounts of their personal experiences developing, living with, and (attempting) recovery from compulsive exercise. Woven through the stories are the personal, situational, and sociocultural influences that shaped their experiences. The two stories recount both different and shared experiences, influences, and trajectories with compulsive exercise and bulimia nervosa, presented through emotional and relatable narratives to appeal to a broad audience of readers.