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Compulsive Exercise

Although exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, exercising excessively can have serious physical and psychological effects. Here are the warning signs.

Compulsive exercise is when individuals exercise to an unhealthy extreme. Compulsive exercisers may display some of the following warning signs (from :

  • 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 is important to note that determining what may be compulsive exercise can be difficult, as what amounts to a healthy level of physical activity can vary from person to person. However, working out several times a day or for extended periods, attempting to gain a sense of control from exercise, and drawing much of one’s self-esteem from exercise are strong indications that the behavior may be compulsive.

Athletes, perfectionists and others at risk

Compulsive exercise is often associated with eating disorders, in particular, bulimia. More than one third of people who over-exercise also struggle with eating disorders. Like these disorders, compulsive exercise occurs more frequently in teenage girls, but is also common in boys, men, and women. Those at risk include (from

  • athletes, especially those in events that emphasis being “lightweight” or thin, or where appearance is valued, such as dance, cheerleading, diving, swimming, crew, track, figure skating, gymnastics, equestrian sports, and wrestling.
  • non-competitive runners
  • perfectionists
  • people who place a lot of importance on winning or being the best

More harm than good

Compulsive behavior is almost never a sign of happiness, and even though exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, those who engage in extreme levels are often anxious, depressed, and have low self-esteem. Too much exercise can also have further harmful effects, both physically and psychologically:

  • destruction of muscle mass, especially if the body isn’t getting adequate nutrition
  • serious injury to muscles, bones and joints, when minor injuries are not given the opportunity to heal, resulting in long-term damage
  • heart damage, especially when excessive exercise is paired with eating disorders — in extreme cases causing death
  • in girls, disruption of hormonal cycle, resulting in loss of menstruation and an increased risk of premature bone loss
  • fatigue and exhaustion
  • isolation from friends and family from constant exercising, resulting in further depression and anxiety, as well as loneliness
  • obsession with exercise can be a gateway for other unhealthy preoccupations

If you or someone you know may be struggling with need to exercise compulsively, please contact the BFDC. We can help.