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Some things are best in moderation. Not many people can deny the positive health benefits of exercise, but for some, exercise becomes a compulsion – something they do to avoid intense feelings of guilt and unworthiness. What is compulsive exercise, and why is it a problem?
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What is Compulsive Exercise?
Compulsive exercise is where a person exercises beyond what is considered healthy – or even safe. While exercise has numerous health benefits, bodies also need time for rest and recovery, and a person who exercises compulsively may completely disregard the need for rest. They exercise as a way to burn off calories or build bigger muscles - and as a way to control their body or emotions. A less appreciated motivation for compulsive exercise is the psychological feeling that comes from aerobic exercise, often dubbed the runner’s high. Some people who exercise compulsively are addicted to this pleasant feeling of euphoria that comes from doing high-intensity exercise such as running.
The life of people who exercise compulsively is not one of pleasure but of discipline and control as they alter their schedule to meet the demands of their overly rigid exercise routine. People who exercise compulsively usually exercise alone, shunning gyms and health clubs, where others can see how long and hard they’re working out. However, some compulsive exercisers spend many hours in the gym each day, every day, despite illness or injury. A study published in Psychiatric Research showed that college students are at particularly high risk of becoming compulsive exercisers.
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How Harmful is Compulsive Exercise?
Needless to say, such an exercise schedule takes its toll on mind and body and what should be a pleasant release from stress actually causes mental anguish – not to mention the physical stress and trauma it places on the body. People who exercise compulsively are more prone to injuries, and women may experience menstrual irregularities that make it difficult to conceive as well as a loss in bone density that increases the risk of stress fractures.
Even when faced with injury or illness, many compulsive exercisers stick to their grueling routine despite the consequences. This is usually a tell-tale sign that a person has crossed the line and is approaching exercise in a compulsive manner. Other signs that a person is exercising compulsively are mood changes, insomnia and excessive weight loss. It may be difficult to recognize a person who’s exercising compulsively, because they hide it behind the guise of exercising to improve their health.
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What is Compulsive Exercise: The Bottom Line?
Compulsive exercise is an example of a healthy habit taken to the extreme. Most people who exercise compulsively do it to establish control over their life, and they may be prone to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Fortunately, there's help available, once a person recognizes that they have a problem.
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Psychiatry Res. 2009 Jan 30;165(1-2):154-62. Epub 2008 Nov 30.
Yates, Alan.(1991) Compulsive Exercise and the Eating Disorders. Brunner/Mazel.