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What Is Compulsive Exercise?
Compulsive exercise (also called obligatory exercise and anorexia athletica) is best defined by an exercise
addict's frame of mind: He or she no longer chooses to exercise but feels compelled to do so and struggles
with guilt and anxiety if he or she doesn't work out. Injury, illness, an outing with friends, bad weather — none
of these will deter those who compulsively exercise. In a sense, exercising takes over a compulsive
exerciser's life because he or she plans life around it.
Of course, it's nearly impossible to draw a clear line dividing a healthy amount of exercise from too much.
The government's 2005 dietary guidelines, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity for
kids and teens on most — if not all — days of the week.
Experts say that repeatedly exercising beyond the requirements for good health is an indicator of compulsive
behavior, but because different amounts of exercise are appropriate for different people, this definition
covers a range of activity levels. However, several workouts a day, every day, is overdoing it for almost
Much like with eating disorders, many people who engage in compulsive exercise do so to feel more in
control of their lives, and the majority of them are female. They often define their self-worth through their
athletic performance and try to deal with emotions like anger or depression by pushing their bodies to the
limit. In sticking to a rigorous workout schedule, they seek a sense of power to help them cope with low self-
Although compulsive exercising doesn't have to accompany an eating disorder, the two often go hand in
hand. In anorexia nervosa, the excessive workouts usually begin as a means to control weight and become
more and more extreme. As the person's rate of activity increases, the amount he or she eats may also
decrease. A person with bulimia may also use exercise as a way to compensate for binge eating.
Compulsive exercise behavior can also grow out of student athletes' demanding practice schedules and their
quest to excel. Pressure, both external (from coaches, peers, or parents) and internal, can drive the athlete
to go too far to be the best. He or she ends up believing that just one more workout will make the difference
between first and second place . . . then keeps adding more workouts.
Eventually, compulsive exercising can breed other compulsive behavior, from strict dieting to obsessive
thoughts about perceived flaws. Exercise addicts may keep detailed journals about their exercise schedules
and obsess about improving themselves. Unfortunately, these behaviors often compound each other,
trapping the person in a downward spiral of negative thinking and low self-esteem.
Why Is Exercising Too Much a Bad Thing?
We all know that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But few people realize that too
much can cause physical and psychological harm:
Excessive exercise can damage tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints, and when minor injuries
aren't allowed to heal, they often result in long-term damage. Instead of building muscle, too much exercise
actually destroys muscle mass, especially if the body isn't getting enough nutrition, forcing it to break down
muscle for energy.
Girls who exercise compulsively may disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies. This can change their
menstrual cycles (some girls lose their periods altogether, a condition known as amenorrhea) and increase
the risk of premature bone loss (a condition known as osteoporosis). And of course, working their bodies so
hard leads to exhaustion and constant fatigue.
An even more serious risk is the stress that excessive exercise can place on the heart, particularly when
someone is also engaging in unhealthy weight loss behaviors such as restricting intake, vomiting, and using
diet pills or supplements. In extreme cases, the combination of anorexia and compulsive exercise can be fatal.
Psychologically, exercise addicts are often plagued by anxiety and depression. They may have a negative
image of themselves and feel worthless. Their social and academic lives may suffer as they withdraw from
friends and family to fixate on exercise. Even if they want to succeed in school or in relationships, working out
always comes first, so they end up skipping homework or missing out on time spent with friends.
A child may be exercising compulsively if he or she:
won't skip a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
doesn't enjoy exercise sessions, but feels obligated to do them
seems anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
does miss one workout and exercises twice as long the next time
is constantly preoccupied with his or her weight and exercise routine
doesn't like to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
has lost a significant amount of weight
exercises more after eating more
skips seeing friends, gives up activities, and abandons responsibilities to make more time for exercise
seems to base self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
is never satisfied with his or her own physical achievements
It's important, too, to recognize the types of athletes who are more prone to compulsive exercise because
their sports place a particular emphasis on being thin. Ice skaters, gymnasts, wrestlers, and dancers can feel
even more pressure than most athletes to keep their weight down and their body toned. Runners also
frequently fall into a cycle of obsessive workouts.
Getting Professional Help
If you recognize two or more warning signs of compulsive exercise in your child, call your doctor to discuss
your concerns. After evaluating your child, the doctor may recommend medical treatment and/or other
therapy. Because compulsive exercise is so often linked to an eating disorder, a community agency that
focuses on treating these disorders might be able to offer advice or referrals. Extreme cases may require
hospitalization to get a child's weight back up to a safe range.
Treating a compulsion to exercise is never a quick-fix process — it may take several months or even years.
But with time and effort, kids can get back on the road to good health. Therapy can help improve self-esteem
and body image, as well as teach them how to deal with emotions. Sessions with a nutritionist can help
develop healthy eating habits. Once they know what to watch out for, kids will be better equipped to steer
clear of unsafe exercise and eating patterns.
Ways to Help at Home
Parents can do a lot to help a child overcome a compulsion to exercise:
Involve kids in preparing nutritious meals.
Combine activity and fun by going for a hike or a bike ride together as a family.
Be a good body-image role model. In other words, don't fixate on your own physical flaws, as that just
teaches kids that it's normal to dislike what they see in the mirror.
Never criticize another family member's weight or body shape, even if you're just kidding around. Such
remarks might seem harmless, but they can leave a lasting impression on kids or teens struggling to define
and accept themselves.
Examine whether you're putting too much pressure on your kids to excel, particularly in a sport (because
some teens turn to exercise to cope with pressure). Take a look at where kids might be feeling too much
pressure. Help them put it in perspective and find other ways to cope.
Most important, just be there with constant support. Point out all of your child's great qualities that have
nothing to do with how much he or she works out — small daily doses of encouragement and praise can help
improve self-esteem. If you teach kids to be proud of the challenges they've faced and not just the first-place
ribbons they've won, they will likely be much happier and healthier kids now and in the long run.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2007
Exercise bulimia is hard to diagnose since everyone talks about how great it is to exercise. If you do
more, isn't that good? Not if you're taking it too far. If you use exercise to purge or compensate for eating
binges (or just regular eating), you could be suffering from exercise bulimia. Of course, knowing how
much exercise is too much is something you may end up learning the hard way, but if you pay attention
to your body, there are warning signs that you've taken exercise to the max.
Compulsive exercisers will often schedule their lives around exercise just as those with eating disorders
schedule their lives around eating (or not eating). Other indications of compulsive exercise are:
Missing work, parties or other appointments in order to workout
Working out with an injury or while sick
Becoming seriously depressed if you can't get a workout in
Working out for hours at a time each day
Not taking any rest or recovery days
Compulsive exercising has to do with control, much the same way people with eating disorders use food
as a way to take control of their lives. But, it can turn into an endless workout if you're not careful since
most folks never feel satisfied with their bodies or their fitness levels, no matter how much they exercise.
Exercising too much can cause all kinds of problems including:
Injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
Low body fat - this may sound good but, for women, it can cause some serious problems. Exercising too
much can cause a woman's period to stop which can cause bone loss
Some of these symptoms also apply to overtraining but if you're obsessed with exercise and use it as a
way to undo bad eating on a regular basis, it isn't something you can tackle alone. Many compulsive
exercisers find they need therapy to help them deal with exercise bulimia. To get started, call you doctor
or check out these online support groups to talk with other people experiencing the same problems
How much exercise is considered too much?
To maintain cardiovascular health, 2,000-3,500 calories should be burned each week
through aerobic exercises, such as running, dancing, cycling and the like. Thirty to forty-
five minutes a day, five or six days a week is sufficient to acquire these health benefits.
Exercise beyond 3,500 calories per week, however, leads to decreased physical
benefits and increased risk of injury. Click here to get more information on muscle
dysmorphia, a condition in which a sufferer engages in compulsive weight-bearing
What motivates sufferers to exercise too much?
Those who compulsively exercise often work out to attain a temporary sense of power
and self-control. Some over-exercisers are also anorexic or bulimic, and cope with their
emotions and anxiety through excessive exercise in addition to their eating disorder.
Participation in athletics or dance can also play a role, as coaches, parents, and other
participants stress that being thin is necessary to succeed with the activity. Those
involved in sports or dance may also receive a great deal of praise for being so “fit and
trim” which can fuel the destructive behavior.
What are the signs and symptoms of compulsive exercising?
Over-exercisers typically work out beyond the limits of safe. They will find ways to work
out even if it means cutting school, taking time off from work, getting too little sleep, or
missing social events. Sufferers typically feel severe guilt when they cannot exercise,
and rarely consider their workouts fun or enjoyable.
What are some consequences of compulsive exercise?
The risks with this disorder are both physical and emotional. All too often, a sufferer
may see deterioration of their personal relationships or failure at work or school. Many
who exercise compulsively become socially withdrawn.
The physical risks are numerous. A very real risk with this disorder is dehydration if the
sufferer is not drinking enough fluids. Over-exercise can also lead to insomnia,
depression, and fatigue. Additional physical side effects include muscular and skeletal
injuries, like shin splits, bone fractures, arthritis, or damage to cartilage and ligaments.
Too much exercise can lead to the release of excessive free radicals, which have been
linked to cellular mutations and cancer. Females may no longer menstruate, a condition
Can a person who compulsively over-exercises become cured?
About 80% of persons with body image disorders who seek professional help recover
completely or make significant progress. All in all, these disorders are behavior patterns
that display very complex emotional conflicts, which need to be resolved for the person
to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
Where can I go for help?
If you think you have an eating disorder, contact CAPS at (215) 898-7021 or The
Renfrew Center of Philadelphia at 1-800-RENFREW.
Today’s urban warriors are much the same. Ginseng, caffeine and Eastern medicine are still being utilized.
Now as it was then, you are no where without the basics namely sleep, smart eating and exercise. First aim for at the
minimum 6hours of sleep a night, for some a brief nap may lead to greater alertness and productivity.
Pack in energy-promoting foods. The definition of energy is calories so make them count. Veggies provide fiber, vitamins
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Caffeine is America’s most popular drug some 85% of Americans drink coffee or some type of caffeinated product.
Americans usually are not the healthiest of the planets people there are better choices to make. South Central America
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