Compulsive exercise can have a wide range of triggers, but almost always results in injuries and an overall decline in health. Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD, who is a registered dietician and serves as the education and training director at Ranch 2300 Eating Disorders Treatment Program, has much experience helping women who have fallen into the obsession with compulsive exercise. Setnick says the signs of compulsive exercise include:
- Exercising excessively without eating enough to fuel it.
- Exercising when ill, injured, or told by a medical professional not to.
- Exercising in an effort to fix something that cannot be fixed with exercise, such as a cheating husband or another emotional trauma.
- Exercising instead of attending social, family, or work commitments.
- Having feelings of guilt and shame if unable to exercise.
- Joining more than one fitness center or gym or other efforts to conceal the amount of exercise from others.
- Secretly exercising under the covers or after others have gone to bed.
- Feeling dizzy or faint during or after exercise; feeling chest pain or skipping beats during or after exercise.
Compulsive exercise is not just feeling bad because you skipped a day of your regular workout regimen or working out anyway when you just don’t feel up to it. This is a major problem that women and men need to take seriously and seek professional help for. Because this is a condition that it is usually triggered by an underlying core issue such as trauma or emotional disturbance, anyone engaging in compulsive exercise should seek the treatment of a mental health professional who is specifically trained and experienced with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety or eating disorders.
If someone who engages in compulsive exercise does not seek help, the condition could actually become more intense and result in overuse injuries, like stress fractures, tendonitis, muscle and joint problems. Allowing this problem to go without help can also lead to additional mental health issues, like the inability to maintain family and social relationships, and increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Setnick also says that other complications that can occur long term, especially if a woman is not eating enough to cover the energy expenditure of all that exercise, can include osteoporosis at a young age, cardiac complications, and injuries that do not heal.
Because the importance of exercise is stressed to us in so many ways and places, it is sometimes hard for people to realize the point where their workouts become obsessive or compulsive. “It often spirals out of control over time, and what starts out as a very reasonable exercise program to promote weight loss, for example, may seem like no longer enough if someone stops losing weight at the same pace,” Setnick says.
The person may convince themselves that the only solution is more exercise, so they increase the amount of exercise. Unfortunately, they often see a decrease in results because the body gets more fatigued and has less time to rest. So they just continue to exercise more, and it becomes a very dangerous cycle.
Erica Jones, a healthy lifestyle expert and owner/co-founder of Designer Health Centers, knows how compulsive exercise can affect women from her own personal experience. “I actually used to be addicted to exercise. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t go a day without exercising,” Jones says. “I worked out 6 to 7 days a week, and even as a doctor myself, I didn’t know why on days I didn’t exercise I felt physiologically depressed.” Jones found that her body had become addicted to the endorphins and physiologic response that occurs when exercising. So she stresses that a sign of compulsive exercise might be that you get headaches, feel fatigued, have a short temper, and get emotional on days you don’t work out. In order to make sure you’re giving your body enough time to repair itself, Jones suggests doing resistance training or HIIT 3-4 times a week and on your off days do something less intense like yoga, a relaxing bike ride, or a light jog.
Compulsive exercising is a real problem that can have both physical and psychological repercussions if not treated. If you or someone you know is suffering from a compulsive exercise habit, see a physician right away.