Amy gets up at 4:00 A.M. to begin her 3 hour exercise routine, which most people would describe as grueling. At around 7:00 A.M, she finally completes the last of her 3 hour aerobic and her daily series of strength training exercises that leave her sweaty and achy. Amy would like to take a day off, but that’s out of the question. Amy is a compulsive exerciser.
When Exercise Becomes a Compulsion
Most people go to the gym because they want to be healthy. The benefits of a regular exercise program are undeniable, but for a small portion of the population exercise becomes a compulsion, an activity that they feel compelled to do to the point of jeopardizing their health. A person who exercises compulsively may spend hours at the gym and experience guilt and psychological distress if they have to miss a workout. Needless to say, they seldom take days off. Exercise becomes something they do to avoid the overriding sense of guilt they experience with inactivity.
Compulsive exercise habits are common among people with eating disorders. Exercise gives them a sense of control, which is something people with eating disorders need. But this overwhelming desire for control becomes a problem when compulsive exercise starts to impact their physical and mental health.
Compulsive exercisers have difficulty taking a much deserved day off from exercise, so they end up overtraining, which leads to injuries. They also get frequent colds and other illnesses because excessive exercise suppresses the immune system. Compulsive exercise also takes its toll mentally as exercise becomes something they “have” to do rather than something they do for health or relaxation.
What Are the Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise?
Physically, compulsive exercisers overtrain. As a result, they experience fatigue and may have difficulty sleeping. One sign that a person is overtraining is they have a resting pulse rate that’s higher than normal. The best time to check this is first thing in the morning. Exercise performance can suffer as overtraining reduces strength and endurance and makes it harder to focus. This can lead to injuries. Unfortunately, compulsive exercisers usually continue to exercise even after an injury.
Women who are compulsive exercisers have additional physical issues. They frequently stop menstruating and are at high risk for bone loss and stress fractures. Fertility becomes an issue too as hormone levels drop too low to make pregnancy possible. Women who exercise compulsively or overtrain can lose bone and muscle mass.
The Mental Symptoms
Compulsive exercisers wage a constant battle with themselves. Psychologically they feel compelled to stick to a superhuman exercise routine, but physically their bodies rebel from the constant overtraining. This can lead to anxiety or depression. It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s hard to break. Exercise can become such an obsession that compulsive exercisers avoid social activities to work out. This can lead to relationship problems. Friends and family may not immediately recognize that there’s a problem and may even applaud them for their dedication to “health.”
The Bottom Line?
Exercise is a habit that can greatly improve a person’s health, but it can become a compulsion for some. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of compulsive exercise and get help before it leads to mental and physical health problems. Exercise is good – in moderation.
Comprehensive Psychiatry. Volume 49, Issue 4, July-August 2008, Pages 346-352.
International Journal of Eating Disorders 31: 370-375. 2002.
WebMD. “Compulsive Exercise: Are You Overdoing It?”