For many people, the most difficult thing about exercising is doing it. Some people, on the other hand, run the risk of doing too much of it. Both extremes are dangerous—not exercising and exercising compulsively.
The compulsive exercise addict is someone whose entire life revolves around his or her workout routine. It is her first activity in the morning, and her last activity in the evening. She may look great, but she works out nonstop—spending hours in the gym each day. Conversations with her eventually get around to the theme of exercise, usually her incredible distance endurance or strength achievements. Once you get to know her, you realize she’s incredibly insecure about her weight and body image, and is even experiencing severe stress, muscle pain, chronic fatigue, and headaches. This is a person suffering from compulsive exercise.
What is compulsive exercise?
Compulsive exercise is known by several names: exercise bulimia, hypergymnasia, anorexia athletica, compulsive exercise addiction, exercise dependence, obligatory exercise, or exercise abuse. It is, at its core, a psychological disorder in which the symptoms involve too much exercise. Although compulsive exercise addiction doesn’t have its own entry in the DSM-IV-TR (the bible of mental healthcare), it is nonetheless recognized as a symptom of bulimia nervosa.
What’s the problem with compulsive exercise?
Since I am a personal trainer, it may seem odd for me to caution against working out. Obviously, however, I am simply warning against an excessive exercise lifestyle. Too much of anything is a bad thing, even exercise. Excessive exercise prevents the body from recovering between workouts, which is essential for muscle strength and growth. The longer this goes on (i.e., no recovery period between workouts), the worse the body’s condition becomes. As the body burns too much energy due to exercise, emaciation and unhealthy weight loss result (muscle atrophy). Here are some of the risks associated with excessive exercise.
- Stress fractures
- Degenerative arthritis
- Amenorrea in women
- Reproductive problems
- Kidney failure
- Heart problems
- Refeeding syndrome
- Muscular atrophy
- Chronic fatigue
Finally, compulsive exercise is extremely stressful. The negative impact of stress on a person’s life is very real. Mental disorders have a profound impact upon a person’s overall physical well being, and can produce a torrent of side effects—from cardio-respiratory problems to skin disorders. The internal stress caused by an exercise disorder can exacerbate existing health problems, and introduce new ones.
A person with an addiction to exercise isn’t merely a driven, type A person. They are driven to an extreme—an extreme which is self-damaging and dangerous.
Who is at Risk?
Anyone may be at risk for exercise addiction. However, women are more likely to experience it than men, and younger women are more likely than older women.
Persons with a history of eating disorders (e.g., anorexia, bulimia) are also more prone than others, and often compulsive exercise is a symptom of such eating disorders.
How do I know if someone is suffering from compulsive exercise addiction?
The symptoms for compulsive exercise will differ widely from person to person. One individual may be healthy and energetic, while another person may be emaciated and lethargic. Watch for these warning signs, recognizing that no one person will have all of them, and that a single symptom may not mean that a person has a disorder.
- Sacrificing one’s lifestyle, family, friends, activities, or personal enjoyment for working out.
- Thinking that exercise as something that one must do at all costs—as an obligation that exceeds all others in importance.
- Obsession with one’s body image.
- The presence of other symptoms such as anorexia or bulimia.
- Spending an inordinate amount of time at the gym (e.g., more than two hours each day), or for long periods of time in spurts. Working out several times a day, every day.
- Never resting between workout days, or never allowing time for recovery from exhaustion, illness, or injury.
- Constantly thinking about, talking about and consumed with exercise and physical fitness.
- Becoming depressed, irritable, or feeling guilty if one’s workout goals are not met; being excessively consumed with accomplishing workout goals.
If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to seek professional help. Confide in a friend or colleague, and ask them to help you to find a healthcare professional. Or call the: NAMI (Helpline National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) 1-800-950-NAMI.
Compulsive exercise is a life-threatening condition, and it’s important to swallow your pride to do what’s necessary for your health.
Keep in mind that a disorder such as compulsive exercise varies with intensity from person to person. Although you may not classify as someone with hypergymnasia, it may be that you need to reevaluate your workout routine for optimal health. Rest and recovery are just as important to your health as working out. Make sure you’re getting enough of both—exercise and recovery.