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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Compulsive exercise : when fitness becomes a problem




It's well known that our bodies require regular movement to function at their best, it helps bolster physical fitness, and supports mental well-being and longevity. However, when the pursuit of fitness turns into an all-consuming compulsion, it can lead to serious health risks, especially when intertwined with eating disorders. Compulsive exercise, often overlooked because of the priorities of a diet and fitness driven culture, is a significant concern within the spectrum of mental health and fitness.



What is Compulsive Exercise?

Compulsive exercise, also known as exercise addiction or obligatory exercise, is an unhealthy fixation on physical activity that exceeds the bounds of what is considered beneficial for the body. It involves an incessant need to exercise, often to the detriment of one's physical and mental well-being. This compulsion can be driven by various factors, including body image concerns, an obsessive need for control, or as a means of purging after eating.



Who Does it Affect?

Compulsive exercise can affect individuals of all genders, ages, and backgrounds, but it's most commonly observed among those with or at risk of developing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or orthorexia. It can also affect those with underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or body dysmorphic disorder.



Health Consequences and Risks

The consequences of compulsive exercise can be severe, leading to physical injuries such as stress fractures, muscle strains, and joint damage. Moreover, it can result in physiological issues like hormonal imbalances, compromised immune function, and irregular menstruation. Psychologically, it can exacerbate anxiety, depression, and lead to social isolation, compounding the existing challenges faced by individuals struggling with eating disorders.



Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the signs of compulsive exercise is crucial in identifying and addressing the issue. Common symptoms include an inflexible exercise routine, exercising despite injury or illness, feelings of guilt or anxiety when unable to exercise, and a preoccupation with burning calories. Additionally, displaying rigid dietary habits, persistent body dissatisfaction, and withdrawing from social activities to prioritize exercise can also indicate an unhealthy fixation.



Diagnosing Compulsive Exercise

Diagnosing compulsive exercise often involves a comprehensive assessment conducted by mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, or specialized eating disorder therapists. They evaluate the individual's exercise patterns, physical health, and psychological well-being to discern whether the behaviour falls within the realm of an unhealthy compulsion.



Treatments

Treating compulsive exercise involves a multifaceted approach, encompassing psychological, medical, and nutritional interventions. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) are among the psychological approaches that can be employed to address underlying psychological issues. Nutritional counselling can to establish a balanced approach to food, while medical supervision can be necessary to manage any physical complications arising from excessive exercise.


When to Seek Help

If you or someone you know demonstrates an obsessive fixation on exercise, particularly if it interferes with daily activities, disrupts relationships, or poses physical risks, it is crucial to seek professional help. Early intervention significantly increases the likelihood of successful recovery and prevents the progression of associated health complications.


How Loved Ones Can Help

Support from loved ones plays a pivotal role in the recovery process. Encouraging open and non-judgemental communication, providing emotional support, and helping to establish healthy boundaries around exercise are essential. It's crucial to educate oneself about the complexities of eating disorders and compulsive exercise to offer empathetic and informed support.


So, while balanced exercise is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle, it can morph into a hazardous compulsion when driven by underlying psychological distress. Understanding the nuances of compulsive exercise, recognizing the signs, seeking professional help, and fostering a supportive environment are critical steps toward reclaiming a balanced and sustainable approach to fitness and well-being.

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