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When Exercise Becomes Addictive (Hypergymnasia)
Guest post by Leslie Vandever
There are so many good reasons to exercise.
Exercise builds and maintains strong muscles and bones. Exercise burns calories that might otherwise be unused and stored as fat, and it helps to maintain a healthy weight for the same reason. Exercise tones the body and contributes to graceful, economic movement. Exercise also helps control blood pressure and cholesterol levels, prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and can even help prevent some cancers.
In short, exercise is healthy. But like everything else in life, too much exercise is harmful rather than helpful. A healthy amount of exercise varies from person to person, given their age, gender, fitness level, and overall general health. But almost no one needs to work out several times a day, every day.
When exercise becomes excessive, unsafe, and unhealthy, it’s frequently the culprit behind injuries like ripped tendons, pulled muscles, shin splints, and stress fractures. Along with exhaustion and constant fatigue, too much exercise can actually destroy muscle mass if proper nutrition isn’t maintained. Too much exercise can affect the menstrual cycle and even cause bone loss and heart damage.
The Perils of Hypergymnasia
But what if exercising has becomes compulsive, even addictive? What if not exercising causes feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety?
That’s when exercise is no longer healthy. It may have become a disorder called, variously, hypergymnasia, anorexia athletica, obligatory exercise, or exercise addiction. The majority of those who have it are female, though males may get it, too. Exercise makes them feel more in control of their lives. They push their bodies to the limit to help them maintain that control, deal with anger or depression, or to cope with low self-esteem.
A person with hypergymnasia no longer chooses to work out. Instead of taking control, she’s lost it. She doesn’t fit exercise into her life, she fits her life into her exercise. Working out doesn’t bring a feeling of joy or well-being. And instead of helping her to excel at her sport, it could injure her or make her sick.
Hypergymnasia and eating disorders often go together. Exercise may start as a weight-control measure, but for someone with anorexia nervosa, over time it becomes excessive and compulsive. A person with bulimia might binge and then exercise too much to make up for it. In both cases, hypergymnasia may result.
Athletes, particularly young ones, may get hypergymnasia from the need to excel, or, if their sport requires a thin body, to be ever thinner. That pressure can come from coaches, parents, or peers, but it can also come from within. The young athlete might believe that the next workout—even if it’s her fourth today—will mean the difference between first and second place, winning or losing, or winning the coveted dance role.
Overcoming exercise addiction is vital for the maintenance of health and well-being. Symptoms of hypergymnasia may include:
- more than two hard workouts a day
- feeling obsessed with working out
- feeling guilty or ashamed for not working out more often than required
- feeling anxious and stressed when not working out
- skipping normal daily activities in favor of working out
- skipping meals and needed nutrition
How To Get Help
Health care providers, along with experts in health and fitness, can help with hypergymnasia. Each may have a different approach to the problem. These individuals may include:
- a family doctor/internist to access overall health and recommend treatment options
- a nutritionist to teach how to eat for optimum health and healthy exercise
- a therapist to help discover and deal with the individual underlying causes of the disorder
- a coach, trainer, or physical therapist to teach how to exercise safely
Other ways to overcome hypergymnasia include:
- learning mindfulness meditation, which can help with self-esteem and stress
- cognitive therapy, which teaches a positive approach to thinking
Leslie Vandever is a professional journalist and freelance writer with more than 25 years of experience. She lives in the foothills of Northern California where she writes for Healthline.
- Compulsive Exercise. (n.d.) KidsHealth.org, Nemours Foundation. Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html#a_Getting_Professional_Help
- Body Image: Eating Disorders. (2010, September 22) Women’s Health. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from http://womenshealth.gov/body-image/eating-disorders/
- Birch, K. Female Athlete Triad. (2005, January 29) BMJ. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC546077/
- Anorexia Athletica: The Not-So-Healthy Mind-Body Interaction (2011, Aug. 1) AceFitness. Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from http://www.acefitness.org/blog/1668/anorexia-athletica-the-not-so-healthy-mind-body