5 Signs of Compulsive Exercise

5 Signs of Compulsive Exercise

Are you obsessed with working out? Does the thought of missing an occasional run or trip to the gym cause you to become extremely anxious? If so, you may have a problem with compulsive exercise.

Most people in the United States do not get enough exercise. However, a small percentage of Americans feel an uncontrollable urge to work out incessantly, actually causing them to get too much of a good thing.

People who exercise too hard or too often increase their risk of physical injury. They may also experience depression and other emotional upheaval that can affect their relationships and work performance. In many cases, compulsive exercise is closely linked with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

Following are five signs that you may have a problem with compulsive exercise.

Workout Red Flags

There is often a fine line between working out vigorously and exercising compulsively. However, there are some key clues that may indicate that your desire to be active has become extreme and unhealthy. They include:

  • Building your life around workouts. Many people fail to stick to exercise plans because they are too busy. Scheduling time to work out each day is an important part of remaining active and healthy. However, people who exercise compulsively plan their lives around their workouts, rather than vice-versa. This includes missing work or school, skipping social events and sacrificing sleep in order to exercise.   
  • Experiencing emotional problems. Do you feel a lot of guilt when you miss a workout? Does the thought of not exercising for a few days cause extreme anxiety? People who compulsively exercise often report emotional problems such as depression related to their workout routine because they may be defining their self esteem through working out. Over time, it is common to feel burned out and to stop enjoying your workouts. Insomnia and fatigue may set in. You may develop problems in your relationships and productivity may plunge at work. A pattern of social withdrawal is not unusual.
  • History of injuries related to exercise. Physical injury is one of the most common symptoms of exercising too much. Sometimes, these injuries are subtle. For example, you may find yourself experiencing irritability or dry mouth related to dehydration. In other cases, the trauma may be more acute. You may experience injury or discomfort related to your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons or cartilage. Women who exercise too frequently may stop menstruating. For serious or professional athletes, this may be an acceptable side effect of hardcore training. However, for most amateur athletes, cessation of menstruation indicates overtraining.
  • Working out at all costs. Obsession with maintaining your workout schedule is a hallmark of compulsive exercise. For example, you may be determined to run outside despite pouring rain, dangerous black ice or bone-chilling cold. Or, you may refuse to take a few days rest from working abdominal muscles even though you are experiencing muscular pain in your midsection. Some people work out when they have the flu, while others try to make up for a missed workout session by working out twice as hard the next day. All of these are signs that your exercise habits are bordering on compulsion. 
  • Changes in eating patterns. Compulsive exercise is often linked closely with eating disorders (such as bulimia or anorexia) and other body image problems. Eating disorders and compulsive exercise both stem from an obsession with regaining and maintaining a sense of control and power in your life. People engage in these behaviors to alleviate anxiety, depression and feelings of low self-esteem. Unfortunately, these measures only work temporarily and usually compound problems over the long run.

Getting Help

If you display some or many of these signs, it may be time to consider professional help for exercise compulsion. Initially, it may be best to consult with your primary care doctor. If your physician suspects a compulsive exercise disorder, you likely will be referred to a mental health professional.

Through therapy, you can address issues of body image and self-esteem that may be at the root of your obsessive need to exercise. You may also learn techniques to help you confront feelings of stress, anger, fear, shame and anxiety.

Effective therapy can help you to recognize the triggers that cause you to work out excessively, and to respond to these triggers in a healthier way.

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