Author: Calene Van Noy, RD, CD

As the Olympics begin and we see the dedicated athletes run, jump, or swim across our television screens, it raises an interesting question related to eating disorders. When does “dedication” turn into an unhealthy obsession? When does exercise become part of an illness known as anorexia or bulimia?

Individuals may be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia with compulsive exercise being a major component. The role that physical activity plays may vary a great deal. Exercise may serve to “purge” the body of unwanted food. It may help individuals to maintain control or feel success in their lives. And it may serve as a means of “avoiding” emotional pain or alleviating depression.

Are you concerned for yourself or for someone you know? The following is a list of possible signs and symptoms associated with compulsive exercise:

Physical

  • frequent injuries such as stress fractures
  • irregular menstrual cycles for females
  • fatigue and chronic muscle soreness
  • anemia
  • frequent dehydration
  • osteoporosis

Behavioral

  • exercising beyond the point of pain or injury
  • punishing self for missing a workout or eating too much
  • the exercise regime maintains priority over social life, work, and/or family
  • keeping detailed records of exercise and eating patterns
  • using exercise to compulsively control weight
  • turning to exercise to deal with emotional pain or difficulty
  • preoccupation with exercise, body, and “health” issues

Psychological

  • compulsive behavior – repetition and perfection associated with exercise routine
  • depression
  • social isolation or abandoning relationships
  • damaged careers
  • drop in school performance
  • anxiety
  • obsessive thoughts and continual rumination about exercise or body

Ask yourself the following questions to see what your tendency towards compulsive exercise is:

  1. Do you feel you have to exercise 7 days a week for greater that 1 hour per session?
  2. Do family, friends, and/or coworkers comment that you are exercising all the time?
  3. Do you exercise despite injury or illness?
  4. While exercising do you think about burning calories and fat, or begin planning your next diet, or how much weight you’re going to lose, etc?
  5. Does your exercise take priority over your social life?
  6. Is your primary motive for exercise to lose weight or maintain a particular weight?
  7. Do you adjust your exercise according to how much you have eaten?
  8. If female, have your menstrual cycles become irregular or ceased?
  9. If you miss a workout do you punish yourself or try to “make-up” for it by restricting your food intake or increasing your exercise the next day?
  10. Are you terrified of gaining weight if you don’t exercise?

If you answer yes to any one of these questions please consider it a warning flag, and assess your priorities. If you answer yes to 2 or more questions please seek professional help.

So, you may be asking yourself, “What is a healthy amount of exercise?” We all know that there are many benefits to physical activity that cannot be denied. However, exercise in no way guarantees you the golden apple of health. Quality of life and balanced health are the true keys. It is important to spend time cultivating all aspects of your life – including mental, physical, social, and spiritual components.