A reader recently emailed me telling me about her problems with an exercise compulsion. She said that there are so many magazines and articles on how to get motivated to exercise, but not much on the topic of over-training.
What happens when we get too much of a good thing? In our society, we are often trained to believe that more is better. The more we workout, the more fit we will become.
But what happens when a healthy habit turns into something worthy of concern, or worse yet, a serious health concern?
Compulsive exercising is said to be one of the newly recognized eating disorders. While women (and men) have been over-exercising for decades, it has only recently gained widespread attention.
There seem to be a few terms for over-training or over-exercising:
1) Exercise Bulimia
2) Anorexia Athletica
3) Compulsive Exercising
1) Exercise Bulimia Symptoms:
Compulsive exercisers will often schedule their lives around exercise just as those with eating disorders schedule their lives around eating (or not eating). Other indications of compulsive exercise are:
- Missing work, parties or other appointments in order to workout
- Working out with an injury or while sick
- Becoming seriously depressed if you can’t get a workout in
- Working out for hours at a time each day
- Not taking any rest or recovery days
Compulsive exercising has to do with control, much the same way people with eating disorders use food as a way to take control of their lives. But, it can turn into an endless workout if you’re not careful since most folks never feel satisfied with their bodies or their fitness levels, no matter how much they exercise.
2) Anorexia Athletica Symptoms:
· Exercising beyond the requirements for good health
· Being fanatical about weight and diet
· Stealing time from work, school, and relationships to exercise
· Focusing on challenge and forgetting that physical activity can be fun
· Defining self-worth in terms of performance
· Rarely or never being satisfied with athletic achievements
· Always pushing on to the next challenge
· Justifying excessive behaviour by defining self as an athlete or insisting that their behaviour is healthy
This disorder is most often recognized in competitive athletes, but it can affect anyone with a preoccupation with weight and/or diet
To me, both of these terms seem like they are much of the same thing only using a different name. Regardless of what we call it, compulsive exercising can have a serious negative impact on our lives.
I dealt with issues of compulsive exercising during the time when I was struggling the most with disordered eating. For me, food and exercise have always gone hand in hand. When I felt out of control with food, I also tended to feel out of control with exercise. I remember being younger and feeling the urge to exercise for sometimes hours in a day. It was never enough. I would go to a softball game or practice where I would be active for a few hours, and then I would come home and feel the need to rollerblade for 45 minutes. I used to use exercise as a way to feel in control of my life for whatever problems I was dealing with at the time, whether it be from a negative body image, problems with friends, or fighting with my parents. Other days I would ‘overeat’ and go over my calorie limit that I set for myself, and I would tell myself that I had to exercise for ‘x’ amount of time so I would burn off the extra calories I consumed. Looking back, I had it all wrong, but of course when someone is in the depths of disordered thinking patterns it is very hard to recognize that it is actually unhealthy.
The Dangers of Over-Exercising:
- Injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
- Low body fat – this may sound good but, for women, it can cause some serious problems. Exercising too much can cause a woman’s period to stop which can cause bone loss
- Reproductive problems
- Heart problems
I can’t tell you whether you have an exercise compulsion and whether it is affecting your life in a negative way. But I can assess my own life and ask myself whether my behaviours impact my life negatively, more than they do positively.
Last fall when I was training for a half-marathon, I was so concerned with adhering to a rigid half-marathon training plan, that I didn’t take into account how my body felt or whether running at the speeds I was running might be hurting my body. I felt guilt for skipping a running day. I was also dealing with a huge amount of stress in my personal life and I felt like I had to workout early in the morning even when my body just wanted to sleep. It was no wonder that my body got injured. This injury taught me to approach exercise in a new light. I now run a few times a week and I rarely, if ever, run two days in a row. This seems to work for me. Of course, many people can run much more than this and are perfectly healthy, but for me I know I feel my best when I don’t. I take frequent rest days now and I listen to my body more than I ever have. Now that I am in tune more with my body, I feel more energetic, I am sick less often, and I feel a renewed sense of motivation when I return to exercise after rest days.
I now feel like I am in a healthy place with exercise. I learned to channel my negative mindset (‘I must workout this amount for the sole purpose of burning off my dinner’) into a healthier mindset (‘I would like to improve my fitness so that I can do 20 push-ups or run a 10k’). I feel much more positive about exercise and I feel much less guilt when I miss a planned workout or take a rest day. But I will admit, sometimes the guilt is still there and I find myself asking whether a small amount of guilt or disappointment is normal and healthy or is it still indicative of a compulsion or unhealthy habit?
I think that a small amount of guilt is pretty normal. Guilt can actually serve useful functions in our lives- it motivates us to reduce the feeling by taking action! No one likes to feel guilty. And when I do feel a twinge of guilt for skipping a workout, it does motivate me to make sure that I get back on track. I also recognize that the guilt I feel every now and then is much less severe than it used to be, and I can carry on in my day and not be too concerned about it.
Some of the questions I have are these:
1) If someone is in the depths of compulsive exercising and doesn’t recognize it themselves, how do they get help? I clearly remember thinking when I was younger that there was nothing wrong with how much I exercised, but looking back I now see that I was in denial. It is similar to any eating disorder really. You can only make a long term change if you are ready to do so.
2) How do we draw the line between what is healthy and what is an unhealthy amount to exercise? I think a good guideline here is that if you are noticing any negative affects in your life as a result of exercise, it is important to assess whether you are doing too much. Like was mentioned above, if you are skipping social functions or you are getting sick/injured often, these may be signs that you are over-training.
3) When does our exercise schedule become a compulsion rather than a healthy habit?
For me, I like to consider exercise in my life to be a healthy habit, just like brushing my teeth. It is something in my day that makes me feel good. I don’t see it as a compulsion in my life because when I do miss workouts, I am flexible enough to not let it phase me. I realize that things in life come up and that is ok.
4) How much guilt is normal to feel for missing a workout?
I used to ruminate all day long about missed workouts and some days it was all I could think about. I also used to have the mindset that I had to reduce the amount I ate if I didn’t workout that day. For me, this was not a normal amount of guilt and it negatively impacted my life. I still feel a bit of guilt now and then, but it is more of a passing feeling that I acknowledge and then move on with my day.
What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with any of the above too?
See you tomorrow AM for a SGBC guest post by Kath on Sports Nutrition!