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Lay people know it as compulsive exercising. The person seems addicted to his or her sport, which is often running or another intense aerobic regimen. Researchers are calling it obligatory exercise. The person feels obliged to pursue an excessive routine in spite of injuries, damaged relationships, and too much time taken off work in service of the activity.

Compulsive exercising can occur when the person repeatedly exercises beyond the requirements for good health. This can have very damaging physical and emotional consequences. Here are some signs to watch for:

  1. Exercising to the point of exhaustion
  2. Exercising when injured, sick/not feeling good
  3. Exercising solely to burn calories, not to get/stay fit and healthy
  4. Being a fanatic about weight and diet
  5. Stealing time to exercise from work, school, and relationships
  6. Forgetting that physical activity can be fun
  7. Defining self-worth in terms of performance
  8. Resenting exercising with others because it will slow you down
  9. Exercising to get rid of feelings
  10. Feeling anxious, guilty, or empty when exercise routine is missed or disrupted

Exercise Used as a Drug

At some point the over-exerciser begins to look like a drug addict. S/he reports that the activity is no longer an enjoyable part of life. It has taken over life and become the top priority under which everything else is subordinate. Exercising is no longer a free choice; it is now necessary and essential. It provides temporary feelings of well-being and even euphoria. The person believes s/he must do the activity, and more and more of it. If s/he does not, s/he feels overwhelming guilt and anxiety which are sometimes described as withdrawal. Eventually the obligatory exerciser becomes obsessive in thought and compulsive in deed. S/he may keep detailed records, scrupulously observe a rigid diet, and constantly focus on improving his or her personal best. Researchers say that prolonged, strenuous exercise stimulates the body to produce substances similar to the opiate morphine. Debate continues whether or not compulsive exercisers become physiologically addicted to these substances. If they do, then obligatory exercise is a vicious circle where the biochemical products of activity lead to a self-induced high, which in turn demands more activity to generate more biochemical products.

The Social Context of Exercise Addiction

Sociologists say we live in an age of narcissism and self-absorption. We are preoccupied with ourselves and our bodies. Both men and women are expected to achieve perfect or near-perfect bodies: slim, toned, strong, agile, and aesthetically appealing. The closer people get to the cultural ideal, the more they notice the flaws that remain. A preoccupation with appearance may grow out of a preoccupation with health and unrealistic expectations. We want to live to a hundred, never be sick, keep all our hair, have unlined faces and flat bellies, be attractive forever to romantic partners, and be strong, quick, and admirably competent. Paradoxically, in the United States, as increasing affluence and improving health care following World War II enabled more and more people to be better nourished and healthier, our satisfaction with our health and appearance has decreased.

Recognizing the Obligatory Exerciser

Recognition is relatively easy. These people talk of nothing but their sport, their training schedules, and their injuries. When injured, they will not take time off to heal unless immobilized. Obligatory runners with stress fractures, torn ligaments, and joint injuries have been known to work out in their walking casts. Exercise addicts misuse their athletic achievements. Instead of enjoying their abilities as one part of a multidimensional life, they make exercising their whole life. They try to boost self-esteem, meet deep needs, and solve complex problems through performance excellence. Or they hide from emotional pain in workout schedules. It doesn’t work, but instead of trying more effective behaviors, they raise their goals and standards, hoping that the increased effort will get the job done. It doesn’t. Many obligatory exercisers repress anger, have low self-esteem, and struggle with depression in spite of significant victories and achievements.

How Much is Too Much Exercise?

Cardiovascular health requires that 2,000 to 3,500 calories be burned each week in aerobic exercise: running, jogging, dancing, brisk walking, and so forth. That can be accomplished by thirty minutes of exercising a day for six days a week, or less strenuous efforts (gardening, tennis, etc.) for an hour a day five days a week. After 3,500 hundred calories are burned per week, the health benefits decrease, and the risk of injury increases. Building and maintaining muscle and bone mass require weight-bearing exercise. Individual requirements vary depending on age and level of fitness. We recommend you follow the advice of a competent trainer. Overdoing weight-bearing exercise can tear down muscle tissue instead of building it. It can also damage bones, joints, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.

Consequences of Obligatory Exercising

Obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, self-worth measured only in terms of performance, damaged or ruined relationships, damaged careers, lower grades in school, stress fractures, damaged bones, joints, and soft tissues. Depression, guilt, and anxiety become problems when exercise is impossible. If the exercise addict abuses steroid drugs in an effort to increase muscle mass, s/he faces additional risks: blurred vision, hallucinations, rages and tantrums, depression, acne, other skin problems, increased blood pressure, muscle cramps, joint pain, loss of sex drive, and mood swings.

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