Skip to main content
jogger

When Exercise Isn’t Healthy Anymore

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Laura Acosta, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida

This post is in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

Burn off stress! Build a stronger core! Maximize your endurance! Get the body you’ve always dreamed of!

There certainly are a lot of promises attached to exercise these days–emblazoned on women’s magazines in the supermarket check-out line, blinking at us from banner ads across the Internet, even on the sides of buses. Of course, there’s no denying that we need to exercise. It’s crucial for our bodies, and has been shown to have distinct benefits for our minds as well.

Compulsive Exercise: A Real Problem

However, is it possible for there to be too much of a good thing? For some people, the answer is definitely yes. Compulsive or obsessive exercising is a real problem, and can become a serious issue, especially for people who also suffer from an eating disorder (or ED), such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. In fact, compulsive exercise is often one of the most difficult symptoms to treat in people with EDs. People who have had problems with compulsive exercise are also more likely to relapse after their ED has been treated.

Worries about body shape and appearance generally motivate those who overexercise. But this isn’t the only issue driving the behavior. Research finds that people who exercise compulsively often use exercise as a way of trying to deal with unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or depression. For some, it may be their only coping mechanism, which can become very unhealthy. Compulsive exercisers are also likely to have obsessive and perfectionist tendencies.

How to Identify a Compulsive Exerciser

What’s the difference between being a fit person who really loves to run or bike, and someone who struggles with compulsive exercise? It’s a good question. Parents may find it especially difficult to tell if there’s a problem when a young person is a competitive athlete. According to experts, signs and symptoms of a problem could include:

  • Inability to take a break, even for a day, and even when ill or injured
  • Feelings of anxiety, guilt, or anger when unable to exercise
  • Missing or canceling social obligations to exercise
  • Exercising as a way to “purge” calories
  • Exercising for longer and longer periods
  • Tying self-esteem to how much exercise you do
  • Feeling compelled to exercise even when you don’t want to or have tried to cut back

Dangers of CE

Compulsive exercise can be physically harmful. Girls and women may cease having periods. Low bone density, stress fractures, and heart problems can also result. And of course, if CE accompanies an eating disorder, those can be extremely dangerous to health.

If you suspect that your child or teen or someone you love may have a problem with compulsive exercise, don’t wait. Speak to a therapist, pediatrician, or registered dietitian with expertise in this area. The resources in Further Reading have more on compulsive exercise, including an online self-test.

(Photo credit: Jogger #2 by Ed YourdonCC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

Compulsive Exercise: Too Much of a Good Thing?

When working out shifts from healthy habit to obsession

Compulsive Exercise

Compulsive Exercise Test

Compulsive Overexercise

References:

Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. (2013). Compulsive overexercise. Retrieved from http://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/portal/compulsive-over-exercise#.VNOmsp3F8hx

Eberle, S. G. (2004). Compulsive exercise: Too much of a good thing? Retrieved from http://www.uhs.berkeley.edu/edaw/CmpvExc.pdf

KidsHealth. (n.d.) Compulsive exercise. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html

Meyer, C., Taranis, L., Goodwin, H., & Haycraft, E. (2011). Compulsive exercise and eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 19, 174-189. 

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2015). When working out shifts from healthy habit to obsession. Retrieved from http://www.anad.org/news/when-working-out-shifts-from-a-healthy-habit-to-obsession/