Exercise is both valuable to and valued by society, so how could it also become unhealthy? Exercise addiction refers to exercise that has grown to be unbalanced and compulsive, and it’s found among men and women and recreational and professional athletes across all sports.
Picture in your mind an athlete who is addicted to exercise. Who comes to mind? Do you imagine your friend who is training for a marathon by running six days a week or that co-worker who is preparing for a triathlon with two-a-day workouts? Or are you thinking about that person who walks four miles a day, every day, and feels terribly anxious if anything intrudes upon those plans?
Even moderate exercise can cross the line and become compulsive. The distinction between moderate and flexible exercise routines and those that are rigid and intense can be difficult to identify. Ask yourself, are you fitting exercise into your life or is your life revolving around exercise? If that question struck a nerve, look at some of the signs published by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) that indicate an exercise addiction.
- have a constant preoccupation with exercise routines or intrusive thoughts about exercise that interfere with your ability to concentrate or focus?
- find time—at any cost—to exercise, like cutting school or taking time off from work?
- turn down social activities so as not to miss your scheduled workout?
- feel overly anxious, guilty, or angry if you’re unable to exercise?
- have trouble tolerating changes or interruptions to your exercise routine?
- exercise alone to avoid having your routine disturbed?
- exercise primarily out of a desire to control your weight, shape, and/or body composition?
- make food choices based solely on exercise (you exercise to punish for eating “bad” foods, to purge calories), or you overly restrict what you eat if you can’t exercise?
- lie about exercise, or you always exercise alone?
- avoid rest days or time off from exercise—even if injured or ill?
- engage in non-purposeful or excessive exercise beyond a sensible fitness or training program (more than once a day or for long bouts of time; beyond what your coach advises)?
- judge yourself on a daily basis based on how much exercise you’ve performed or how hard you worked out?
- find no fun or pleasure in exercise; you’re never satisfied with your physical achievements?
You don’t have to show all the signs listed above to have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. If you read the descriptions, you will recognize someone struggling with an exercise addiction builds their life around exercise, generally has obsessive thoughts about exercise, and may feel very anxious about any disruptions to their routine. The mental effects of exercise compulsion can cause stress between loved ones or disrupt work and school obligations. You may feel you have been “bad” or the day was “terrible” because you didn’t complete your exercise routine.
The physical effects can be equally as damaging. Increased exercise intensity or pushing through injury can lead to stress fractures, decreased immunity, anemia, electrolyte imbalances, reduced bone density, menstrual dysfunction, fatigue, and decreased athletic performance.
Compulsive exercise is often very good friends with disordered eating, and sometimes female athletes develop what is known as the Female Athlete Triad, which “consists of three components, each on a continuum: low energy availability, menstrual dysfunction, and low bone mineral density.” Low energy availability simply means you aren’t consuming enough calories and are exercising too much. Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D. said “most athletic woman need a minimum of 13.5 calories per pound of lean body mass (weight without body fat)” in order to menstruate.
Don’t feel ashamed if you find yourself associating with some of the signs listed in this article; the line between moderate, healthy, and balanced exercise is blurry. The signs and symptoms can run along a continuum. If you feel you are developing some unhealthy exercise habits, take a look at what is driving you to keep the routine going. What are some ways you can build in more balance? How do you react to the notion of taking two days off a week, resting if you are injured, and allowing disruptions in your routine such as spontaneous social events or work obligations?
A licensed therapist and registered dietitian can help you sort out what are healthy athletic goals and establish a plan to meet your nutrition needs while also helping you develop other relaxation techniques to reach the overall goal of a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.