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Hooked on a good thing: when exercise becomes addictive

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Exercise…if you were going to have an addiction, it seems like this would be a good one to have. Exercise gives you a healthy high. It’s not illegal. And doing it can keep you fit.

But when a routine sweat session turns into an obsession, there is a problem.

While the rest of the country fights to combat the skyrocketing rate of obesity, there’s trouble quietly brewing in the opposite corner. It is called “exercise addiction,” and those who suffer from it often push the boundaries of what is considered safe exercise.

You’ve probably been witness to or known an exercise addict. It may be the person at the gym who lifts weights for an hour, runs for an hour and then takes one or two classes a day, or it may be the body builder who spends half his day pumping iron.

In a nation that worships the flawless, rail-thin images of women like those featured in the pages of Glamour or Vogue, or the beefy six-packs sported by male models and Hollywood actors, many women and men are on a compulsive mission to look their best – often to their body’s detriment.

Confessions of an exercise addict

Andrea Owen is a 35-year-old life coach and stay-at-home mom of two in Oceanside who says her addiction to exercise got dangerously close to fatal. A failed first marriage in 2006 stimulated her exercise obsession.

“Exercise was my coping mechanism,” said Owen, who authors the blog Live Your Ideal Life, a site that empowers women to develop self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem. “I wasn’t exercising to be healthy; I was exercising to be thin. I couldn’t control my outside world but I sure as hell could control how my body looked.”

While her marriage and life began crumbling around her, Owen exercised herself down to a dangerous 117 pounds on her 5- foot-4 inch frame. She was running too many miles, suffering injuries and not consuming enough calories to sustain her rampant exercise routine. Owen knew better — she is a certified personal trainer with a kinesiology degree, who is ashamed to admit that she wasn’t practicing what she was preaching to her clients.

“My exercise addiction took a lot of life from me,” said Owen, who admits that despite knowing what was good for her body, her obsession caused her to ignore her own instincts.

“That was the proof of the power of my addiction,” she adds.

When healthy becomes unhealthy

An exercise addict’s craving — whether it is an exercise-induced “high” or a relentless weight loss goal — is often a means to justify another end.

Exercise addiction is often stimulated by a deeper psychological problem, usually by those suffering from body image issues or disordered eating, such as anorexia or bulimia. Compulsive exercisers also use exercise to mask underlying emotional issues, as in Owen’s case, and as an obsessive means to perfect themselves physically.

Medical experts have classified exercise addiction as a non-purging eating disorder otherwise referred to as “exercise bulimia.” Although exercise bulimia is not a clinical diagnosis, its roots and symptoms are closely aligned with bulimia, as exercise bulimics often follow their eating indulgences with obsessive exercise, purging their bodies of calories necessary for mental and bodily functions.

An estimated 1 percent of the adult population in the U.S. will suffer from bulimia and 2.8 percent from a binge eating disorder, reports the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition, 15 percent of young women in the U.S. who are not diagnosed with an eating disorder display substantially disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, according to Girl Power!, a public education program of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Many exercise bulimics go unnoticed because their addiction — in this case, exercise – is generally considered good for you. And don’t think this problem is a female-only issue. Unlike traditional bulimia, the disorder is nearly as common in men as it is in women.

Exercise addicts are often clumped into the category “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (or EDNOS), a melting pot for patients who don’t fit the standard, and often rigid, criteria of anorexia or bulimia.

Sandra Levy Ceren, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing in Del Mar who says this lack of diagnosis creates a problem that could exclude those who need help.

“Exercise addiction is not generally a diagnosable condition,” said Ceren, who recommends exercise in moderation to her clients. “However, any repetitive behavior may be considered a problem. Like an addiction, there’s a compelling ‘need’ that compulsive exercisers feel to work out, and if they don’t exercise then they fear something terrible will happen.”

Warning signs of exercise addiction

Here are some indications that you may be an exercise addict:

  • You work out for hours at a time
  • Exercise through injury or sickness
  • Become depressed if you are unable to exercise
  • You take little or no rest or recovery days
  • You let exercise and body image affect your life
  • You justify your behavior as a means to an end, such as calling yourself an “elite” athlete

Before all of you gym rats rush to diagnose yourselves as exercise addicts, there is an important distinguisher between an addict and someone who is overtraining. It all comes down to the intention behind exercise.

A compulsive exerciser’s motivation goes beyond the desire to be physically fit, and more to boost their self-esteem, strive for bodily perfection or exert some kind of emotional control in their lives. Exercise quickly loses the fun aspect for addicts and becomes a punitive, abusive means to ward off weight gain or other self-loathing emotions. Someone who is overtraining may be striving for a health goal of a triathlon or marathon, but does not take enough time to recover between workouts in their intense training regimen, which could lead to injury or burnout.

Ben DeLuca is a fitness director with Frog’s Fitness in San Diego who says it is common for exercise addicts to work out five to eight hours a day. And to skirt watchful eyes, he says they will often join multiple gyms in order to exercise unnoticed for hours on end.

“Exercise is normally a good, healthy way to cope with stressful situations,” said DeLuca, a certified personal trainer who has worked in the fitness industry for 10 years. “However, exercise can have an adverse affect when it’s abused to the point where the body breaks down.”

DeLuca says that despite the grueling hours compulsive exercisers put in at the gym, they typically won’t have a great physique. Their physiques will often look “average” because they are putting their bodies in such a catabolic state, where their body is literally eating its own muscle.

Exercising too much can cause a variety of problems including:

  • Injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
  • Fatigue
  • Heart problems
  • Malnutrition and dehydration
  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis
  • Low body fat which could lead to reproductive problems in women and loss of bone density in men and women

“Just because you suffer aches and pains doesn’t immediately mean you’re an exercise addict,” said DeLuca. “It may be an indicator that you are overtraining and not diversifying your exercise program the right way.”

DeLuca, a former body-building competitor, admits that fitness professionals can also dance along the line of exercise addiction, often motivated by the need to maintain a specific body image expected in their line of work.

“The problem is exacerbated for fitness professionals who, like any addict, tend to run in the same circles with those doing what you are doing,” said DeLuca.

Time to step off the treadmill and get help

Often an exercise addict doesn’t get appropriate help or seem to believe they even need help. Typical of drug and alcohol addicts, exercise bulimics can’t stop cold turkey unless they suffer a serious injury or illness.

“Exercise addicts are single-minded…this is what defines them, what they are going to do and they don’t want to hear anything about it,” said Ceren. “So I’ll start by asking them to do a little less and see if they felt any worse for it.”

Ceren, who has 40 years of clinical experience, recommends a treatment approach that starts with weaning an exercise addict off exercise one day at a time. Then she will monitor how they feel in an effort to discover the underlying goal for their compulsive behavior and treat that issue first.

Although Owen was able to snap out of her addictive exercise routine on her own, she admits that she still struggles with reverting to her old ways when life throws her a curveball. Instead she has learned to exercise for her health and to focus on her life-oaching career, in which she is helping other women like herself who suffer from body issues.

If you recognize two or more warning signs of compulsive exercise in yourself or a friend or family member, consult a medical professional to discuss your concerns. After a careful evaluation, you may be advised to undergo medical treatment or therapy.

Exercise addiction is a race to nowhere with severe repercussions. If you or someone you know may be suffering from exercise addiction or disordered eating, please visit Psychiatric Centers at San Diego, a website that lists San Diego-based psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in a variety of mental health services.

Cassie Piercey is an SDNN contributing writer and communications manager for efi Sports Medicine, creator of Total Gym® and GRAVITYSystem® health club fitness program.

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