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Compulsive Exercise

Exercising every day... It’s good for your body, and good for your soul. But some people who exercise every day are trying to reach an impossible goal. Their behavior is as dangerous as binging and purging to control their weight. These people suffer from a disorder known as compulsive exercise.

Most athletes training at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) in Murray are looking to increase their sports performance. So they take their exercise seriously. And while all of us are encouraged to be more like them and exercise every day, there 'is' such a thing as too much exercise.

“I would say more than 90 minutes to two hours a day could constitute compulsive exercising.”

Kristi Spence, a sports dietician at TOSH, says that compulsive exercise is a coping mechanism – a way for people to relieve stress and anxiety surrounding a personal or relationship issue.  And, while exercise is proven to be a great stress reliever, compulsive exercise is an extreme behavior that really is counterproductive.

Spence says one of the dangers of exercising beyond 90 minutes to two hours a day is the “diet factor” or eating enough to support that amount of exercise. “In the case of compulsive exercise, I think that's the idea,” says Spence. “I think people are trying to burn off excess calories. And so, maybe they are not eating enough.”

man on lat machine at gym Dr. Jim Walker, Sport Science Director at TOSH says that compulsive exercisers don’t take time off, and that exercising at such an extreme rate does more harm than good. “Fitness goes in plateaus and valleys,” says Walker. “When you train, muscles get damaged. Then they need time to repair themselves. With no rest, that repair never takes place completely. Therefore you don’t build muscle and improve your fitness.”

Walker says that people need to balance periods of exercise with periods of rest. Without rest, a body may develop muscle fatigue, which in turn, causes decay in fitness and performance. When that happens, the body starts to hoard calories, causing frustration when the weight loss or weight maintenance process stops.

“When you continually train and do so at the same level all the time,” says Walker, “you reach a plateau and you typically don't ever improve.”

Additional research shows that compulsive exercisers are a lot like drug addicts. After a while, they no longer find pleasure in exercise; but continue the behavior because they feel obligated. And, while exercise may give them a temporary feeling of well-being or euphoria, they soon need more and more exercise to reach and maintain that feeling. If he or she is forced to miss a workout, they will typically have feelings of guilt and anxiety, similar to withdrawal symptoms.

Spence says much of what's driving a person to exercise compulsively is an unrealistic expectation of what their body should be.

“This is so tough in our society today, encouraging people to be ok with their body type. There is a concept of health at every size: you really can be strong and healthy internally, even if you are not a size 2. That's hard for a lot of people to understand, but some people have larger bones than others...some people tend to carry weight in different places than other people. It's mostly genetically determined and no matter how much some people exercise – they may be extremely toned and fit, but their general body type is not going to change very much.”

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