Only 22% of Americans exercise regularly, but they are not all healthy. Some are compulsive exercisers who are getting too much of a good thing.
Fitness experts are beginning to define this subset of exercisers who appear to be working out excessively for all the wrong reasons.
When people become compulsive or addicted to exercise, they may be using the activity as a means to express unhealthy feelings, says Janet Polivy, a fitness researcher at the University of Toronto.
“When society emphasizes anything, people with a pre-existing neuroticism who are looking around for ways of coping may pick up on this,” she says.
But using exercise as an avoidance technique usually fails, she adds.
“If you are using exercise to combat depression or severe anxiety, and you have to stop exercising, you may be overwhelmed by these feelings.”
When compulsive exercisers are being treated, they are told to cease exercising, Polivy says. If they can address their emotional problems, it’s usually safe to begin exercising again--moderately.
Overcoming this compulsive behavior is not an easy thing. .
“A compulsive exerciser may continue to run despite a stress fracture,” says researcher Vanessa Clendennan of the University of Toronto. “They may neglect their marriage or it may interfere with work.”
In extreme cases, some compulsive exercisers may cut off a cast in order to start working out again--this, despite the fact that compulsive exercisers don’t really enjoy working out and may become depressed or anxious when they stop. Over-exercise can also affect eating habits.
And, among competitive athletes, performance usually declines, says psychologist Jack Raglin of Indiana University.
But because exercise is usually considered healthy, lots of people--even fitness experts--have trouble identifying when exercise goes too far, says Ron Thompson, an eating disorders expert at Bloomington Hospital in Indiana.
“It is sometimes hard to identify these people. I’m not sure you could find a lot of coaches who could spot such a thing,” he says.