We are constantly overloaded with information about the benefits for exercise and our body’s need for it. Despite the fixation, there is the point of “too much of a good thing,” and that’s where compulsive exercise can come into play. Often the person who is compulsively exercising is getting compliments from others on their commitment to exercise or being asked for advice. Research shows that compulsive exercise plays a role in both the development and maintenance of some common eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, with estimates ranging from 50-80 percent. It is also often a way of managing anxiety. Healthcare providers may not notice or screen for the compulsivity due to the medical system pressures to promote exercise.
Compulsive exercise, excessive exercise, and compensatory exercise are all terms that may be used to describe the intense need or compulsion a person has to exercise and they feel guilt or shame for not exercising or exercising less than they think they should. These terms describe exercise outside the realm of normal or healthy.
- Excessive exercise: Exercising more often or more prolonged than is recommended.
- Compensatory exercise: Exercising to compensate for the number of calories eaten during a binge.
- Compulsive exercise: Feeling you must exercise and feeling distressed if you can’t, keeping a rigid exercise routine, and being motivated to exercise primarily to control your weight or shape.
The biological factors associated with eating disorders, such as food restriction, a chemical imbalance in the brain and psychological factors play a role in the relationship between excessive exercise and eating disorders. This problematic pattern of exercise has common characteristics, such as:
- Exercising alone to avoid attracting attention of others
- Continuing to exercise even though sick or injured
- Skipping obligations like work or school to exercise
- Maintaining a rigid workout schedule
- Putting exercise before everything else, including health and safety, and social life
- Planning life around exercise
- Working out twice as long to make up for a missed session
- Exercising more after eating more
- Feeling obligated to complete an exercise routine
- Worrying that sitting still or relaxing will not burn enough calories
The relationship between excessive exercise and eating disordered behavior is complicated and extends beyond the desire to shed calories or avoid weight gain. It becomes a cycle of increased physical activity that reduces food intake and causes an individual to engage in disordered behaviors, which in turn can perpetuate patterns of excessive exercise.
Jessica Ward, Director of Therapeutic Services at Selah House says, “We see components of excessive exercise in more than 50% of our cases here.”
At Selah House, we help clients understand the body’s need for food and energy without exercise while also helping them to understand their relationship with exercise, and the purposes it serves. Once clients recognize this, we reintroduce them to exercise, emphasizing that it should be enjoyable and help them look for opportunities where it can help build healthy relationships.
Jessica adds, “Our approach to exercise is in alignment with our approach to food emphasizing variety, moderation, and balance. We aren’t teaching clients that exercise is bad, but encouraging them to look at it and make sure they are addressing all aspects of their well-being.”
If excessive exercise is interfering with your daily functioning, seek help from a mental health professional even if an eating disorder is not apparent. Selah House can help. We offer a full continuum of Christ-centered and clinically excellent care for individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and related disorders. We believe the combination of a unique step-down approach and multidisciplinary therapies in a homelike setting is the best path for treatment. The common thread that runs through our eating disorder treatment programs is our love for our clients and their families and our complete dedication to their healing.