During her years at Smith College, Caitlin Scafati battled what’s known as exercise bulimia–a type of eating disorder that drives patients to cut their weight by working out at least two hours a day. In addition to extreme weight loss, the syndrome can lead to stress fractures or early osteoporosis.
At the peak of her illness, Scafati, 24, burned thousands of calories daily at her dorm’s gym, a facility unsupervised by the school. It was only after Scafati lost close to 100 pounds that a professor finally took her to rehab. “I knew I was sick,” she says.
School officials have been struggling since the mid-1990s with which role to play in dealing with overexercisers, a group particularly prominent in the stressful college environment. There are no hard numbers, but 44 percent of U.S. undergrads and graduate students say they know someone suffering from exercise bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. “It used to be too much drinking or drugs [to deal with stress],” says Lynn Grefe, NEDA’s CEO. “These days, it’s too much exercise.”
Staffers at Boston College may have a solution: digital technology. This summer the college—one of the “fittest campuses,” according to Men’s Fitness magazine—plans to install a system that requires students to use IDs to swipe into gyms and digitally reserve cardio machines. Designed to toughen gym security, the software can also track individual habits—an enticing side effect on a campus where exercise bulimia is a “major concern,” says assistant fitness director Tom St. Laurent. Next year gym staffers will crunch the numbers to help identify exercise addicts.
Fitness directors elsewhere say they’re skittish about recording student workout habits, and many privacy experts agree. “Are we going to watch everyone in the school cafeteria, too?” says Dr. Deborah Peel, the founder of the advocacy group Patient Privacy Rights. “It gets really invasive.” MIT has the same technology Boston College is installing, but keeps individual records “vaulted” and doesn’t examine them. At Northwestern, privacy concerns keep the staff from even gathering individual facility-entry records, according to Dan Bulfin, director of fitness and recreation. His staff has intervened only a dozen times since the mid-1990s. “It’s a very delicate situation,” Bulfin says. And, sadly, perhaps futile as well: to avoid scrutiny, many addicts exercise in their own rooms.