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Compulsive Exercise In Athletes

Exercise Addiction and Compulsive Exercise in Athletes

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Updated April 22, 2014

Some athletes suffer from a subtle form of eating disorder that results in excessive and addictive exercise in an attempt to control or lose weight. Addictive exercisers may use extreme training as one way to expend calories and maintain or lose body weight in the attempt to improve performance or achieve a desired body shape or weight. They often justify their behavior by believing a serious athlete can never work too hard or too long at their sport. Discomfort, pain or even injury will not keep an exercise addict from training.

Nearly all compulsive exercisers suffer from overtraining syndrome. They often live with muscle strains, soreness, stress fractures and other chronic, overuse injuries, such as tendinitis.

When confronted about this excessive exercise, they may insist that if they didn't work this hard, their performance would suffer. They also tend to cling to the false belief that even the smallest break from training will make them gain weight and unable to compete at the same level.

Many compulsive exercisers have behaviors similar to drug addicts. The athlete no longer finds pleasure in exercise, but feels it is necessary. It is no longer a choice; it has become an obligation. While exercise may provide a temporary feeling of well-being or euphoria, the athlete requires more and more exercise to reach this state. If he is forced to miss a workout, he will report overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety, similar to withdrawal symptoms.

While some researchers report that excessive exercise causes the body to produce endorphins (hormones secreted by the pituitary gland that block pain, decrease anxiety and create feelings of euphoria) there is still debate about whether one can become physiologically addicted to exercise. Endorphins are, however, chemically similar to the highly addictive drug morphine, so addiction to exercise is not beyond the realm of possibility. For many athletes, compulsive exercise appears to be psychologically addictive. Such athletes report that reducing their amount of exercise suddenly often results in bouts of severe depression.

Warning Signs of a Compulsive Exerciser

  • You suffer symptoms of overtraining syndrome.
  • You force yourself to exercise even if you don't feel well.
  • You almost never exercise for fun
  • Every time you exercise, you go as fast or hard as you can.
  • You experience severe stress and anxiety if you miss a workout.
  • You miss family obligations because you have to exercise.
  • You calculate how much to exercise based on how much you eat.
  • You would rather exercise than get together with friends.
  • You can't relax because you think you're not burning calories.
  • You worry that you'll gain weight if you skip exercising for one day.

Compulsive exercise is as dangerous as food restriction, binging and purging, and the use of diet pills and laxatives. Compulsive exercise can quickly lead to more serious types of eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia as well as a number of serious physical dangers including kidney failure, heart attack and death.

Compulsive exercise is a serious health concern that often requires the intervention of someone close to the athlete such as a coach, teammate or family member who recognizes these warning signs and seeks professional help. If you suspect someone close to you is exercising compulsively you can help by learning more about this condition and talking openly with the athlete about getting appropriate professional help.

Getting Help - Treating Compulsive Exercise
Exercise addiction and other eating disorders are serious and can become life-threatening if left untreated. Identifying the type of eating disorder is essential to get the right help. About.com's Guide to Eating Disorders offers the following eating disorder treatment and recovery resources.

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Sources:

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Goldfarb, A.H. & Jamurtas, A.Z. b-Endorphin Response to Exercise: An Update. Sports Medicine 24(1):8-16 (1997).

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED), 2005. Eating Disorders - Patient Information.

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  5. Overtraining Issues
  6. Compulsive Exercise in Athletes - Sports Medicine

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