Exhausted female runner resting after running

This article, ‘Compulsive Exercise’ was printed in Staying Fit – (Issues), an educational resource used in GCSE, A-level and further education courses, and Fitness – (Issues Today Series), an educational resource aimed at Key Stage 3 students, published by Independence Educational Publishers Ltd.

Compulsive Exercise

Compulsive exercise is also known as obligatory exercise, excessive exercise, exercise addiction and anorexia athletica, and it describes a compulsion to exercise for longer and more vigorously than what is considered ‘normal’.

Compulsive exercise does not necessarily always occur alongside an eating disorder, but it is often one of the first signs that someone may be developing a negative relationship with food and possibly an eating disorder such as anorexia.

Exercise is a good thing if it is done for the right reasons, that is, to improve or maintain physical fitness and overall general health.

But exercising at very vigorous levels and for prolonged periods can be bad for health, even dangerous.

Too Much Exercise

People who become addicted to exercise may start with normal, good intentions to be fit and healthy, but the number and intensity of exercise sessions gradually increases until they develop a dependency on exercising.

As things get out of control, exercise becomes not so much a choice any more as a need.

How much exercise is too much? This is a grey area. Doing more than the government-recommended amount (at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, five days a week) does not automatically mean a person is exercising too much.

Signs of Compulsive Exercise

Here are the signs that someone may have an unhealthy compulsion to exercise:

A compulsive exerciser exercises at length (perhaps for one to two hours or more), most days or every day, sometimes several times each day, often at a vigorous intensity, including when they are feeling unwell or have an injury. Exercise is not undertaken as a fun or pleasurable experience.

Exercising in unusual places and at odd times is not uncommon, such as in bed, in the middle of the night, or even in the shower, as the person becomes secretive about their behaviour and tries to hide the amount of exercise they are doing.

Exercise interferes with normal life, taking priority over everything, with all other activities planned around it. This is likely to result in the person becoming withdrawn, and not doing things such as socialising with friends and spending time with family.

Anxiety, Depression & Mental Health

The person feels guilty and anxious if they are forced to miss an exercise session, perhaps due to illness, injury or other commitments. If a session is missed, they may try to make up for it at the next one by exercising harder and for longer, or by not eating.

Sitting still may sometimes be difficult because it feels like a missed opportunity to do more exercise.

People who exercise excessively often suffer from anxiety and depression, poor body image perception and low self-esteem, and worry about their weight (as is often the case in people with eating disorders).

Exercise becomes a way of dealing with these emotions and gaining a sense of control over their lives, while their sense of self-worth is often based on the number and intensity of exercise sessions they can fit in.

Serious Health Effects of Compulsive Exercise

There is a real risk of injury and permanent damage to bones, muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons due to excessive demands placed on the body, especially if it is not allowed to rest and heal.

In addition to this, if adequate nutrients are not consumed, muscles begin to waste away, as the body resorts to breaking down muscle mass as a source of energy.

For women, excessive exercise affects the balance of hormones, leading to amenorrhea (absence of the menstrual cycle), fertility problems and osteoporosis (bone loss).

It also makes people more susceptible to infections, fatigue and exhaustion as the body is pushed beyond its limits. Unnecessary stress is placed on the heart.

Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders

In the context of an eating disorder, compulsive exercise can be considered a form of purging, whereby an attempt is made to get rid of calories and prevent or reverse the effects of putting food into the body.

The amount and type of exercise undertaken will be decided after a careful calculation of how much food has been eaten and how many calories must be burned.

Eating very little and exercising too much is a dangerous combination, and can be very serious, even fatal.

Kirby, S. (2008). Compulsive exercise. Staying Fit – (Issues; Volume 162), 39.

Kirby, S. (2009). Compulsive exercise. Fitness – (Issues Today Series; Issue 23), 25.

This article was originally published on disordered-eating.co.uk. It was reprinted in Issues and Issues Today with my permission.

More information: Identifying Causes & Treatment Options of Compulsive Exercise.

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