Regular exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle and sound weight-loss program. In fact, most experts suggest that we get 60 minutes of exercise each day for optimal health. But while a little exercise is a good thing, taking exercise to the extreme can cause serious health issues, even death. When few adults exercise regularly, and many struggle to find just 20 minutes to dedicate to a workout, it may be hard to believe that some people place exercise at the center of their lives. But some people feel compelled to exercise above and beyond normal levels, often in a desperate attempt to burn every calorie they consume.
Compulsive exercise is more than a desire to get in the ultimate shape or manage one's weight. Sufferers of exercise bulimia use excessive exercise to purge or compensate for eating binges or simply regular eating, often working out multiple times per day or for three or four hours at a time. Deep down, this disorder has more to do with control than it does the desire to fit into a smaller size of jeans.
The scary thing about an addiction to exercise is that it creeps up gradually, usually among everyday people who start exercising, feel good afterward, revel in the calories they're burning, have a desire to get healthier or lose weight, and therefore start believing that more is better. Oftentimes, people who develop an exercise compulsion don't feel like there's anything wrong with what they do. They think that what they're doing is healthy, and can't understand how others don't see it that way.
Compulsive Exercise Vs. Exercise Bulimia: What's the Difference?
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, compulsive exercise and exercise bulimia are two different things.
Compulsive exercisers build their lives around working out and are genuinely distressed if they can't exercise as much as they feel they need to (or should be). Exercise bulimia is similar, but involves eating binges. People who suffer from exercise bulimia often binge on food and then exercise obsessively to make up for it. Exercise becomes a way to control calories, justify eating, and punish oneself for eating too much or eating the "wrong" things.
Both conditions are indicated by the following symptoms:
Choosing to exercise instead of going to work or enjoying social activities with friends or loved ones
Refusing to take any rest or recovery days, even when injured
Continuing to exercise even when ill
Exercising to the point of exhaustion
Never exercising for fun
Experiencing severe stress and emotional upset, including depression, if unable to exercise
Obsession with calories eaten and calories burned
Preoccupation with burning calories throughout the day, even when not exercising
How Much is Too Much?
There is no certain amount of exercise that is automatically "too much" for every person. In general, exercising for up to 60-90 minutes, most days of the week is reasonable and healthy for most people as long as recovery and downtime is built in. Competitive athletes may exercise for hours each day without any problem. The right amount of exercise for you may differ from your friend or neighbor and should take into account your fitness level, lifestyle, current health status and more.
So how do you know if you're exercising too much? It's a matter of attitude and whether your thoughts and behaviors about exercise mirror the list of symptoms described above. When exercise becomes one of the most important aspects of your life, and when your life revolves around exercise, it could be more than dedication—it could be an unhealthy obsession.
Associated Health Problems
Exercise is usually a good thing, but rest and recovery are very important, too. Excessive exercise can weaken the body and cause a host of problems, including:
Suppressed immune system
Lack of menstruation (amenorrhea) in women due to a lack of body fat