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Compulsive Exercise: Are You Overdoing It?

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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, 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.

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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:

  • An elevated resting heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Deteriorating physical performance

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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