Fitness Articles

When Too Much Exercise Becomes a Problem

Compulsive Exercise and Exercise Bulimia

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Regular exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle and sound weight-loss program. In fact, most experts suggest that we get 60 minutes of exercise each day for optimal health. But while a little exercise is a good thing, taking exercise to the extreme can cause serious health issues, even death. When few adults exercise regularly, and many struggle to find just 20 minutes to dedicate to a workout, it may be hard to believe that some people place exercise at the center of their lives. But some people feel compelled to exercise above and beyond normal levels, often in a desperate attempt to burn every calorie they consume.

Compulsive exercise is more than a desire to get in the ultimate shape or manage one's weight. Sufferers of exercise bulimia use excessive exercise to purge or compensate for eating binges or simply regular eating, often working out multiple times per day or for three or four hours at a time. Deep down, this disorder has more to do with control than it does the desire to fit into a smaller size of jeans.

The scary thing about an addiction to exercise is that it creeps up gradually, usually among everyday people who start exercising, feel good afterward, revel in the calories they're burning, have a desire to get healthier or lose weight, and therefore start believing that more is better. Oftentimes, people who develop an exercise compulsion don't feel like there's anything wrong with what they do. They think that what they're doing is healthy, and can't understand how others don't see it that way.

Compulsive Exercise Vs. Exercise Bulimia: What's the Difference?
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, compulsive exercise and exercise bulimia are two different things.

Compulsive exercisers build their lives around working out and are genuinely distressed if they can't exercise as much as they feel they need to (or should be). Exercise bulimia is similar, but involves eating binges. People who suffer from exercise bulimia often binge on food and then exercise obsessively to make up for it. Exercise becomes a way to control calories, justify eating, and punish oneself for eating too much or eating the "wrong" things.

Both conditions are indicated by the following symptoms:
  • Choosing to exercise instead of going to work or enjoying social activities with friends or loved ones
  • Refusing to take any rest or recovery days, even when injured
  • Continuing to exercise even when ill
  • Exercising to the point of exhaustion
  • Never exercising for fun
  • Experiencing severe stress and emotional upset, including depression, if unable to exercise
  • Obsession with calories eaten and calories burned
  • Preoccupation with burning calories throughout the day, even when not exercising
How Much is Too Much?
There is no certain amount of exercise that is automatically "too much" for every person. In general, exercising for up to 60-90 minutes, most days of the week is reasonable and healthy for most people as long as recovery and downtime is built in. Competitive athletes may exercise for hours each day without any problem. The right amount of exercise for you may differ from your friend or neighbor and should take into account your fitness level, lifestyle, current health status and more.

So how do you know if you're exercising too much? It's a matter of attitude and whether your thoughts and behaviors about exercise mirror the list of symptoms described above. When exercise becomes one of the most important aspects of your life, and when your life revolves around exercise, it could be more than dedication—it could be an unhealthy obsession.

Associated Health Problems
Exercise is usually a good thing, but rest and recovery are very important, too. Excessive exercise can weaken the body and cause a host of problems, including:
  • Fatigue
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Lack of menstruation (amenorrhea) in women due to a lack of body fat
  • Reproductive problems
  • Heart problems (such as muscle wasting and rhythm problems)
  • Dehydration
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stress fractures and sprains
  • Kidney failure
Beyond physical ailments, excessive exercise can cause mental and emotional upset, interfere with normal, healthy relationships, and is often associated with anxiety and depression, too.

If you experience health problems like these that could be tied to excessive exercise, talk to your doctor and take some time off from fitness. If the thought of taking a few days or even a week off from your exercise routine upsets you, that too could be a sign that your dedication to fitness is unhealthy.

Getting a Diagnosis
Compulsive exercise and exercise bulimia can affect both men and women of all ages, races, body types and weights. Because adherence to an exercise program is usually a positive thing that is admired and encouraged, exercise bulimia is often difficult to diagnose. A doctor may ask if the person is exercising and get the right answer (yes), never knowing the extent to which the patient is actually jeopardizing his or her health by taking exercise to the extreme. A physician may first suspect a problem if a woman stops menstruating due to a drop in body fat, which affects estrogen levels, but the condition may be virtually undetectable in men whose body fat levels can be much lower without creating any health problems.

Even if your physician doesn't pick up on these signs, if you read the list above and think that this may sound like you, it's important to discuss your concerns, habits, and feelings with your doctor to find out if you may have a problem—and get help.

Treatment Options
Exercise bulimia can be a symptom of deeply rooted emotional problems. Studies have found that sufferers often come from families where food was used as a way of controlling behavior and battles surrounding food were common. Some bulimia sufferers are highly self-critical and aim for perfection in many areas of their lives. Because they feel they are never good enough just the way they are, they may exercise compulsively as a way to feel worthy and good about themselves.

Traditional treatments for exercise bulimia include support groups, cognitive behavior therapy, psychotherapy, and/or medication, such as anti-depressants. Other treatments include hypnosis and guided imagery, which allows the individual to create a new, positive, body image. The purpose of any treatment path is to gain awareness of the underlying reasons that caused the disorder in the first place, such as feelings of panic or being out of control. It is also important to lower the perfectionist standard and become more self-accepting so that exercise can serve its purpose in your life—not be the center of it.

To learn more about eating and exercise disorders and receive a referral to a health practitioner in your area, contact the National Eating Disorders Association at: 1-800-931-2237 or visit: www.edap.org.

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople experts Dean Anderson, behavioral psychologist, and Jen Mueller, certified personal trainer and health educator, and Nicole Nichols, certified personal trainer and health educator.

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Member Comments

  • When I saw this article, I thought this may be a bit of me. Well, it is a lot of me. I'm already at 1030 calories burned today with only 320 calories eaten with breakfast and lunch. Not everything applies, but a lot of it does. It's something to think about. Thank you for an informative article
  • LAUREL903
    This article! A thousand times yes! This is why I have trouble dieting. And what doctor would ever diagnose it in someone who still had some weight to lose like myself? Besides, do you know how hard it would be to actually talk about this to someone and ask for help? It would be baring my soul, I would feel incredibly vulnerable and I know that whatever that other person said would become the basis of my thoughts of what's wrong with me. I'm not about to have them dismissed or belittled. I'd rather try healing myself, as much as I dearly wish help was available to me.
  • What is an exercise bulimic ? ? ?
  • As a former exercise bulimic, I'd like to say "Thanks for the trigger warning." *Sigh*
  • GBROWN51

    Doing exercise generally lifts mood and not experiencing elevation in mood but getting stressed instead is a sure sign of over exercise. This article by Reebok Fitness club highlights what are the symptoms of excessive exercise and how can we prevent it? http://reebokclub
    .co.uk/news/o
    ver-exercising
  • OMG....I was reading about myself!! I, too, suffer from excessive exercise. I try to keep it under control now. But I see myself creeping up to the end result....exercis
    e too much, too long, replacing exercise for company, exercising when sick all the symptoms mentioned.
  • good article, we often aim so much for perfection that we get lost in the process, so many issues with weight/ weight control start from within, I really feel for those who struggle. Its a silent killer...
  • As someone who's suffered from this before, I think this article is on the money, a good warning for every and anyone. I can now take sick days and down days, and don't freak out if I can't make a workout because of other demands, but I remember the dark days when that wasn't the case, when there was never enough exercise I could do. I'm glad this article reminds me people that even with all the good exercise does, it too can be abused. Take care Sparkers! :)
  • I used to work with a woman who fit the description of exercise bulimia. One of her demons was chocolate. She would eat 2 pounds in a morning at work, then exercise like crazy on her lunch hour and after work. She was able to mask part of this because we worked in the fitness center of a major university. And she was slim, so no one was paying too much attention. I found her to be very sad. Her description of her relationship with her spouse and son was dysfunctional. Then I met her dog. This lady was feeding the dog one chocolate for every one she ate at home. This beautiful young black lab, just over a year old, was so obese she could barely walk. The dog did not have the compulsion to work out, chocolate is not good for dogs, and the whole situation was just so sad. Like any eating disorder, there are multiple issues, and much help is needed to deal with them. Acknowledging the problem is a start, but help is needed over the long run of life. My best wishes to anyone dealing with the pain of any eating disorder.
  • MRS_4EVER_AFTER
    I have recently gone through treatment of Exercise Bulimia along with another ED. It's a very serious and scary disease and one that takes a long time to fully recover from. I still battle the fitness demons. The horrible things it did to my body, things that can never fully heal. And like the article said, it does creep up on you and more often than not, accompanies other EDs and it rarely the only ED present.
  • Exercise bulimia sounds like a really stupid term, since Bulimia is a life threatening disorder from the trauma done to the throat and imbalance in electrolytes.
  • This was interesting to read. I knew about compulsive exercising but I had never heard of exercise bulimia.
  • LIVINGONMYTERMS
    Wow! That was a good article and very informative. I thought it was just a form of OCD. I never thought about it as being bulemic and never heard of this until now. Thanks SP!
  • I had exercise bulimia when I was a teenager, although I didn't know it was called that. I remember wondering if I was bulimic, because I recognized I was bingeing, but I told myself I was okay since I wasn't throwing up.
    I haven't "dieted" or worked out since, as I worried about returning to that obsession. I haven't even owned a scale until last month. So, I eventually became the thing I feared most, overweight.
    Fortunately, I am not the same insecure person that I was then. I may not be completely happy with every part of my body, but I'm happy with me, and I can appreciate myself. I am gentle with myself.
    I'm happy I found SP to motivate me to become the person I always wanted to be.
  • This is a very important article. I have met many people who have one of these conditions, and it is very difficult to get them to accurately view their behaviors as unhealthy, because they get positive reenforcement from people around them, such as "I wish I looked like you." I hope readers will question themselves while reading the article, and reach out for help if they think they have the symptoms.

About The Author

Leanne Beattie Leanne Beattie
A freelance writer, marketing consultant and life coach, Leanne often writes about health and nutrition. See all of Leanne's articles.

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