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What are the Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise?

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 9/17/2010

Exercise is a good thing, but not if it becomes an obsession. Learn how to recognize the symptoms of compulsive exercise before it leads to more serious mental and physical problems.

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    What are the Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise?

    Some people exercise because they enjoy it and to reap the health benefits, but for a small minority of people exercise becomes a compulsion – something they have to do to avoid feeling guilty or unworthy. This type of compulsive exercise not only affects a person mentally, but physically too. What are the symptoms of compulsive exercise?

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    Two Categories of Compulsive Exercise Symptoms

    The symptoms of compulsive exercise fall into two categories - mental and physical. Most people who exercise compulsively experience both types of symptoms, although they may not recognize their extreme exercise habit as a problem. Not only can it be a burden for them but for the people around them too.

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    The Mental Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise

    People who exercise compulsively fight a mental battle with themselves. They feel tired and even a little depressed at the thought of another long workout, but psychologically the pain of not exercising overrides the discomfort of forcing themselves to do it. Most exercise excessively because they want to burn calories, but the underlying issue is one of control. They need to feel they have control over their bodies and their exercise habits, which causes a great deal of psychological distress. The result can be depression, problems sleeping, and frustration with their inability to control their mounting compulsion.

    Most people who exercise compulsively feel most anxious and uncomfortable when something interferes with their daily workout since they define their self-worth by their exercise performance. They may avoid social events and alienate themselves from friends and family for fear of it interfering with their workout. Sadly, friends and families don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of compulsive exercise and think the compulsive exerciser is simply well-disciplined. They may even envy their focus on “health".

    People who exercise compulsively feel guilty when sitting still and constantly look for a way “to burn some calories". They may exercise for long hours and at odd times - and even get up in the middle of the night to work out. This is often a tip-off that something is wrong.

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    The Physical Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise

    Too much exercise eventually takes its toll on the body. People who exercise compulsively may develop extreme fatigue and generalized aches and pains due to overuse of their limbs. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to stop them. Most compulsive exercisers work out even when they’re injured or sick. This is usually a give-away that exercise has become an unhealthy obsession.

    Women may exercise so much that they stop menstruating due to low levels of estrogen. This can lead to bone loss and fractures - even in young women. It also makes it difficult for a young women to become pregnant. Compulsive exercisers may also develop significant weight loss, particularly if they have disordered eating habits too, and they may experience a loss of muscle mass. Not surprisingly, they’re more prone to injury too.

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    Compulsive Exercise: The Bottom Line?

    It’s important to recognize the symptoms of compulsive exercise – and seek help. The need to exercise can completely take over a person’s life by ruining relationships and further damaging their self-esteem. Exercise is a good thing...but not when it becomes a compulsion.

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    References

    International Journal of Eating Disorders 31: 370-375. 2002.

    Comprehensive Psychiatry. Volume 49, Issue 4, July-August 2008, Pages 346-352.

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