|Exercise should be part of a healthy lifestyle, but it should not take over your life.|
Is there such a thing as too much exercise? You will often hear concerns regarding Americans’ sedentary lifestyles and the need for people to “get moving” in the media. While this is most definitely a present concern, there are also individuals on the opposite spectrum that need to tone their exercise behaviors down. I work as an instructor at a gym and have experienced compulsive exercise behaviors first hand. Some people habitually visit the gym three to four hours a day and become extremely troubled if something gets in the way of completing their rigorous workout routine.
Terms such as “obligatory (or compulsive) exercising”, “negative addiction”, and “exercise dependence” are all used in literature and all encompass obsessive exercise behaviors (1-4). Compulsive exercise can be defined as “an intense drive to be active, often in a rigid, routine-like fashion that is predominantly performed to manage weight and shape, as well as alleviating negative emotions.” (1). Up to 10% of high-performance runners have an addiction to exercise (3). Compulsive exercise is often discussed within the family of eating disorders (i.e. Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa), as they often occur simultaneously (1,2). Exercise, along with purging or restricted eating, is often used as another method for weight control.
Predictors of compulsive exercise:
One study investigated the risk factors for compulsive exercise. The three strongest predictors were:
1) A drive for thinness
3) Obsessive-compulsiveness (1)
It is by no surprise that perfectionism and a drive for thinness were on the top three predictors of compulsive exercise, as society today endorses both of these behaviors.
According to Diane A. Klein, MD, of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, “So for people driven to achieve, to be perfectionists, and to be in optimal health, it’s kind of understandable that they become excessive.” (3) The demands from society to have a perfectly sculpted physique are simply unattainable and harmful.
How much is too much?
How do you know that exercise is becoming a problem? Symptoms of exercise dependence may include the following withdrawal symptoms in the absence of exercise: disturbed psychological functioning (i.e. severe distress, guilt, anxiety) and an interference with personal relationships. In addition, some individuals continue to run despite serious injury (2,4).
Acknowledging that there is in fact a problem is the first step to treat exercise addiction. Getting to the route of the obsession - whether it is a low sense of self-esteem or previous family history of addiction - is key. In very serious cases, psychotherapy may be a treatment (3).
Exercise for your health
In moderation, exercise is a wonderful thing. Benefits of exercise include a lower risk for chronic diseases, prevention of weight gain, better cognitive function, reduced depression, and the list goes on. It is currently recommended that Americans get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate level activities per week, and at least 2 days of strength training. How will you get your exercise this week?
Jenny, a 46-year-old secondary compulsive-exerciser (i.e. secondary to an eating disorder), was interviewed about her exercise attitudes and behaviors. Jenny stated, “My life tends to fit around the exercise, not the exercise fits into my life.” (2) Healthy living requires a careful balance of both diet and exercise. Make it a priority to fit exercise into your life for health!
1) Goodwin H, Haycraft E, Willis A, Meyer C. Compulsive Exercise: The Role of Personality, Psychological Morbidity, and Disordered Eating. Int J Eat Disord. 2011 Nov; 44(7):655-60.
2) Bamber D, Cockerill I M, Rodgers S, Carroll D. “It’s exercise or nothing”: a qualitative analysis of exercise dependence. Br J Sports Med. 2000;34:423–430.
3) Allen A. Exercise addiction in men: When exercise becomes too much. Retrieved June 21, 2012 from WebMD:
4) Shipway R, Holloway I. Running free: Embracing a healthy lifestyle through distance running. Perspectives in Public Health. 2010 Nov; Vol 130 No 6.
5) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved June 21, 2012. http://health.gov/paguidelines/adultguide/part2.aspx
About the Author:
Amy Krug is a senior Nutrition and Dietetics major at