Exercise Addicts: The Bad Health Effects of Too Much Exercise

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Heading to the gym and getting a workout in is always a great thing to do; even 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day is enough to help prevent diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. But what happens when you begin to exercise too much (and yes, this is a real thing even if you can’t fathom it happening to you), and you cross the line to exercise obsession? It takes over your life; people who are exercise addicts tend to think that their two-hour run makes them healthier, but sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

So, what’s the difference between exercise enthusiasts and those who are obsessed with it? Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England states how you can distinguish healthy enthusiasts from addicts: “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives round their exercise.”

Being an exercise addict is loosely defined as, being on par with other addict activity (think alcoholics or sex addicts), and having a common repetition of behavior to the point where it becomes self-injurious. When it comes to exercise, it quite literally means that someone will refuse to stop or limit their regime even when they have an injury. Addicts or compulsive exercisers basically will exercise to excess every day and allow nothing to get in the way of their exercising habits — very different from those of us who have a healthy relationship with the gym and use exercise as a means to enhance our lives rather than control it.

For the majority of us, exercise is a great thing that we don’t usually get enough of. The small minority, the compulsive exercisers, are usually perfectionist athletes, and are referred to as “obligatory athletes”.

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Psychiatrist Alayna Yates, MD, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, has seen about 100 men and women she describes as “obligatory runners.” They’re an unusually high performing, smart bunch, with an average of 18 years of education. What makes someone more likely to pick up this hurtful addiction? As evidenced from the study, it would seem that excessive exercise, like extreme dieting, attracts people who feel the need to control their lives.

Exercise addiction has been seen in as many as 10% of high-performance runners, and possibly an equal number of body builders. The bad side effects of this addiction are injuries, exhaustion, depression, and even suicide. It can also cause deep, internal harm: your adrenal glands, pumping out hormones as your pound the pavement, can only produce so much cortisol at once. When you exercise to excess, your cortisol production cannot keep up and can cause a severe lack of energy. Your resting heartbeat rises as well.

This is important to note: not everyone who exercises a lot is an exercise addict. Although you may not be part of that 10% who suffer from this compulsion, many of us have gone through exercise highs and lulls, and have just about crossed that line into too-much-exercise territory but not to such an extreme.

Treatment for exercise addiction, according to therapists, involves getting athletes to see and recognize that they have a problem and that change is necessary. This helps get to the bottom of the real problem, which shows addicts their self worth and how over-exercising is destroying their bodies.

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