What is compulsive exercising?

Exercise is a vital activity for all human beings, and statistics show clearly that the average South African does not exercise enough. Nevertheless, some people exercise to the point that it is actually destructive, and find it hard to obtain from this compulsion, no matter what the reason. Of course, not everybody requires the same level of exercise. A corporate executive with a busy life and three kids might find that they are quite satisfied to allow themselves to feel healthy on 3 hours a week, whereas a professional sportsman might average more hours than this on a daily basis. Nevertheless, some signs of compulsive exercising might include:

  • making exercise a priority over personal relationships
  • feeling ‘withdrawal symptoms’ such as irritability when unable to exercise
  • feeling guilty or depressed when you don’t exercise
  • feeling like your job or relationships get in the way of exercise
  • missing school, studies or work to exercise
  • exercising regardless of injuries, tiredness or illness
  • ignoring the concerns of your friends and family about your attitude to exercise.

Common risks of exercising too much

  • Immune dysfunction: Excessive exercise without adequate recovery stresses the body, decreasing immune function and increasing the chance of respiratory infection.
  • Reproductive health problems: Women whose body-fat levels fall below 13 to 17 per cent can stop menstruating, a condition called amenorrhoea. When a woman is experiencing amenorrhoea, she is infertile. Amenorrhoea caused by excessive exercise is reversible when body fat returns to normal. Normal levels are usually above 20 per cent.
  • Mood and cognition problems: People who exercise too much can suffer from withdrawal symptoms including sleep disturbances, depressionanxiety, confusion and difficulty concentrating when they miss a day of exercise.
  • Bone health: Both men and women who exercise too much are at a higher risk for developing osteoporosis and stress fractures. Women can suffer irreversible bone loss if they are not menstruating.
  • Soft-tissue injuries: Avoiding rest or treatment for injuries can result in chronic damage to connective tissue. People who exercise too much also experience muscle soreness when they do not exercise. Instead of building muscle, too much exercise can destroy muscle mass, especially if the body is not getting enough nutrition, forcing it to break down muscle for energy.

Possible signs and symptoms of over-exercising

  • Feelings of extreme guilt when an exercise session is skipped
  • Family members expressing constant concern over the amount of exercise
  • Consistently injury, including fatigue, soreness and stiffness
  • Hormonal changes, including decreased testosterone in males, and increased production of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress that can cause the breakdown of bone, leading to an increased risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis.
  • Muscle wasting.
  • Continuing to exercise and ignoring signs of damage to the body
  • Having feelings of being unable to quit and exercise
  • Increased anxiety and discomfort with rest or relaxation, and an inability to stop exercising.

Do you have a problem?

You can download and complete the following exercise addiction questionnaire if you wish to know whether you would be likely to meet a diagnosis of exercise addiction.



How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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