What is Excessive Exercise?
What is the single most important component for improving or maintaining physical health? Ask anyone this question and they will likely tell you to take regular exercise. And they would likely be right. Swapping an evening on the couch for a session in the gym is a well-worn route to health and vitality; a route requiring both discipline and dedication. However, even as healthy a behaviour as taking exercise can – if taken to extremes – become problematic in the form of excessive exercise.
An individual may begin to obsess about every step on the treadmill, or about every rep in the gym. Doing so may cross the line dividing a healthy from an unhealthy approach to exercise, an approach sometimes referred to as excessive exercise or compulsive exercise.
What divides a healthy from an unhealthy approach to exercise? It is not determined by the amount of exercise an individual takes. Nor is it determined by his following this or that fitness regime. Instead, it is determined – not by the hours he puts in – but by the physical, psychological, and social harms that result from his approach to exercise. If, because of his approach, he experiences negative consequences that far outweigh potential benefits, the line has been crossed.
In this case, treatment for excessive exercise in the form of therapy can be beneficial.
Excessive exercise – an addiction?
People can become addicted to behaviours in the same way they become addicted to substances. One angle, therefore, from which to view excessive exercise is that of the 4Cs of addiction. The 4Cs is a simple model of addiction with four criteria: compulsion, craving, control, and consequences. Anyone whose behaviour meets these criteria is considered an addict.
- Compulsion is an absolute and overpowering urge to partake in the activity. The behaviour may start impulsively and – in the case of exercise – with the best of intentions. But if the need to partake in the activity becomes an absolute must – and no longer a choice – then compulsivity has replaced impulsivity.
- Craving occurs when the urge to fuel the addiction mimics a physical need. When we are very hungry or thirsty, we have a physical craving. If this craving is not satisfied it results in restlessness or irritability. The craving of the individual who misses a gym session may not be physical – it is psychological – but for him the subjective experience is the same.
- Control refers to the individual who, rather than controlling his behaviour, instead finds it controlling him. Recognising his behaviour as problematic he tries to reduce the activity. If he fails in his attempts, it is because he has lost control.
- Consequences: As far as excessive exercise is concerned, the most apparent of the 4Cs are the consequences. If an activity produces negative consequences that far outweigh the positives, and – if despite this – the behaviour continues, a diagnosis of addiction is likely.
Negative Effects of Excessive Exercise
There is, of course overlap, between the 4Cs. For example:
An individual may injure himself during exercise. Or he may injure himself elsewhere or have some other medical condition. If prevented from training he experiences the withdrawal symptoms of restlessness and irritability, he is craving. If, giving into this craving, he continues to train and worsens his injury, he suffers consequences. If – despite knowing this – he does it again and again, he has lost control.
The physical consequences of excessive exercise include joint pain, stress fractures, and loss of sleep.
Besides physical health, other aspects of the individuals’ life may suffer. Prioritising exercise above all else, he neglects his interpersonal relations. By replacing exercise for friends and family he experiences social isolation. Similarly, his work life may suffer, affecting his professional status. Each of these has a knock on effect on his mood.
Studies of exercise-addicted amateurs find they experience lower self-satisfaction, lower mood and energy, and higher rates of depression. Studies of professional athletes find similar results. These studies could not determine if excessive exercise causes lower mood, or if lower mood drives these individuals to excess.
Regardless, it points to a further consequence. That is, continuing to exercise despite any lack of enjoyment. Excessive exercise often focuses on an attempt to achieve an almost impossible ideal. The individual might obsess about reaching a number on a scale, or a personal best on the bench press. However, he keeps moving the goal. Gaining little to no satisfaction on reaching his previous target, the individual merely sets the bar even higher.
Similarities with Orthorexia and OCD
The perspective of addiction is just one view. A different perspective on excessive exercise is its link with OCD.
Excessive exercise and orthorexia often run hand in hand. Both are defined by an excessive concern with health and fitness. Indeed, it is common to meet both presentations at the same time. Orthorexia has been linked with OCD, links which apply also to excessive exercise. Find out more about orthorexia here.
Other Causes of Excessive Exercise
Some other causes that drive an individual to exercise excessively include:
Excessive exercise is a common symptom of muscle dysmorphia, a condition affecting bodybuilders. Also known as ‘reverse anorexia’, muscle dysmorphia is characterised by the persistent belief that one is not muscular enough. This leads not only to excessive exercise, but to overlap with orthorexia due its protein-focused diet designed to build bulk.
Seeking to improve self-esteem:
An individual with body image issues – perhaps a teen with a changing body, or a woman after pregnancy – may seek to bring about change. Indeed, exercise is a wonderful way to improve our self-esteem. However, if dissatisfaction remains, driving us perpetually onwards, excess can result
Carving out a self-identity:
Linked with low self-esteem is lack of identity. The individual who lacks an identity can find it by joining a gym or with a group of like-minded individuals. Similarly, he may find his identity in sporting achievement. However, he risks becoming a one-sided individual.
Fear of death, illness or other health complications:
Perhaps an individual has had a health scare, perhaps a recurring ailment, or perhaps – having witnessed a loved-one pass – an excessive fear of dying. While we recognise nobody lives forever, one way to control that fear – knowing it is good for the body – is through exercise.
Perhaps an individual has experienced a trauma, an experience in which they had no control. Seeking to regain confidence, they attempt to regain control through exercise.
Treatment for Excessive Exercise
Most of the above are perfectly valid reasons to take up fitness. Improving self-esteem and taking control of our lives are noble goals. But remember, we must never lose sight of the goal. If we do and if we discover our approach to exercise is causing us physical, psychological, and social harm – and if that harm outweighs the benefits – we may consider seeking help through therapy.
Treatment for excessive exercise does not mean we stop exercising. Instead, it is about, through therapy, finding balance and moderation; reducing negative consequences and taking back control; taking our one-sidedness and rounding off other aspects of our personality; ridding ourselves of our obsession with our time and our performance. Whatever finish line we set ourselves, by returning exercise to its status as an enhancement of our life, we can take pleasure in a race well run and a life well lived.
Our Counselling Services
We provide expert counselling and psychotherapy services for treating excessive exercise and other disordered eating related difficulties. All of our psychologists and psychotherapists are fully qualified and accredited, and can work with you on your relationship to food, exercise, and your body.
We have a nationwide network of clinic locations in Dublin and across Ireland that are specialised in treating disordered eating difficulties, including:
- 10+ clinics across North and South Dublin
- 2 clinics in Wicklow
- 2 clinics in Kildare
And find out more about other disordered eating related issues here.