Compulsive Exercise: Are You Overdoing It?

Many people exercise daily, whether on a sports team, in classes at the "Y," or with solo activities like running, swimming, or biking. Not only is it fun, but exercise has tremendous benefits, like controlling weight, increasing endurance, strengthening muscles and bones, improving mood, and reducing the risk of serious illnesses. Problem is, some take it to the extreme with compulsive exercise. Instead of getting moderate exercise, these people are compelled to exercise excessively every day.

You might say that compulsive exercise is too much of a good thing. Those who compulsively exercise are at risk for developing eating disorders, and are also more likely to be unhappy.

Studies show that more than 90% of women who have bulimia nervosa (binge eating with purging) exercise to compensate for binge eating. Experts believe that young women who exercise compulsively have more restricted diets, a greater preference for thinness, and more dissatisfaction with life than those who simply enjoy exercise.

What Are the Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise?

People who take part in compulsive exercise may feel great most of the time -- unless it rains and they are unable to run for miles. They think excessive exercise is the best way to stay thin, build lean muscles, and be a star in their sport. Those with exercise compulsion often engage in sports such as ballet, gymnastics, wrestling, or track and field.

The symptoms of exercise compulsion might include:

Many girls who over exercise lose their menstrual periods (called amenorrhea). Amenorrhea can lead to serious reproductive problems and also can cause early bone loss and fractures. In some girls, excessive exercise may even delay puberty.

How Is Compulsive Exercise Treated?

Slow down! You don't have to exercise intensely 7 days a week to be at the top of your game.

In fact, most experts claim that rest is the other half of an athlete's workout. You work out, and then you rest. You work out again and rest. Rest gives your body time to heal from the stresses put upon it by running, swimming, dancing, wrestling, strength training, or other activity.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (a form of psychotherapy that involves examining faulty attitudes and beliefs about yourself) and, sometimes, medicines that treat compulsive behaviors can be useful strategies to help manage compulsive or addictive exercise behavior.

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How Can Compulsive Exercise Harm My Health?

Regular, consistent exercise boosts your immune system. But when you over-train or exercise daily to the point of exhaustion, it can hurt your immune system by pouring the powerful stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your body.

Exercising too much simply makes the body exhausted. Your body has no time to rest and heal, and the exercise compulsion increases the likelihood of injury, sickness, and fatigue.

Other problems happen when you exercise compulsively. Teens who exercise too much have difficulty sleeping. Relationships are hurt when you make exercise the priority, instead of enjoying friends and social outings. You also might feel irritable and inattentive at school.

Compulsive exercise also increases the risk of eating disorders such as bulimia. Bulimia nervosa affects mostly girls and is marked by episodes of binge eating that occur at least twice a week for at least three months. Teens with bulimia are over-concerned about their body image and weight. They regularly use self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, severe dieting, and extreme exercise to keep from gaining weight.

When Should I Call My Doctor About Exercise Compulsion?

Do you have exercise compulsion? Look at the following statements and see which ones apply to you. If two or more of the statements apply, talk to your school counselor or your health care provider about your compulsion to exercise:

  • I exercise even when I run a fever or have a bad cold.
  • The first thing that comes to my mind each morning is "exercise."
  • When I can't exercise, I'm so afraid that I will gain weight.
  • I break dates with friends and family so I can exercise more.
  • When I miss exercise, I feel irritable and depressed.
  • I work out rain or shine, even in freezing temperatures or thunderstorms.
  • I crave the "high" feeling that I get from exercise.
  • I am underweight for my height.
  • Losing weight has become more of a priority than maintaining a healthy weight.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 27, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Frisch, R. New England Journal of Medicine, 1980. 

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 

National Eating Disorders Association.

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