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What is Exercise Addiction? Do you Exercise Excessively?
Posted: 6/10/2013 | Wellness Comments
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We all know that exercise is good for us. There’s a wealth of research showing us that moderate exercise prevents heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and arthritis. It improves immune function, maintains a healthy weight, adds years to your life, creates a more youthful body, increases brain health, and the list goes on.

Many studies show that even twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, three or four times a week at a moderate exertion, will give you significant health benefits, and those benefits are cumulative. In 1996 the Surgeon General reported that it’s important to strive for half an hour a day, most days, of moderate physical activity. All types of exercise, including aerobic exercise, stretching, and resistance training, can have their place in your exercise regime. We might include Pilates, yoga, dance, gardening, hiking, jogging, walking, and other activities into our lives.
But is there such a thing as too much exercise? The answer might surprise you.
Most of us would say that we don’t exercise enough. Yet for some, in our extreme fitness obsessed culture, no amount is enough. Someone might exercise too much or too hard because they believe they “have to” exercise every single day in order to feel okay, and when they don’t they feel terrible. On the other hand, someone might avoid exercise entirely because of the shame they feel around their body.
Looking from the outside, we might see someone who exercises every single day as disciplined or as “staying in shape.” But if someone feels bad or guilty if they go a day without exercising, this is a problem. Some might be exercising excessively and compulsively trying to “manage” their anger, or other feelings they’re unconsciously trying to stifle. Some might be overeating and then purge through trying to “manage” their weight by extreme exercise. Others might undereat and then over-exercise thinking they’re fat. These are addictive behaviors with underlying unconscious feelings and thoughts.
As with all addictions, the driving force behind a compulsion to exercise too vigorously is the quest to numb out and avoid or suppress difficult feelings and thoughts. Many people are afraid, even terrified of their emotions. Excessive exercise is often an attempt to fill an emotional emptiness inside. Depression, anxiety, and unhealed trauma can be temporarily disguised with the endorphins released by repetitive, compulsive behavior. At some point, however, it always catches up with you. The compulsive behavior begins to interfere and takes away from parts of your life, including relationships, work, and pleasure. Furthermore, the body can't excessively exercise every day with no adequate athletic recovery time and rest, without eventually sustaining injury to your joints and a potential for the heart and other organs to be damaged.
Remember that for most of us these addictive behaviors are present in degrees, and are not at the extreme end of the spectrum. The book Almost Anorexic, by Jennifer J. Thomas, Ph.D. and Jenni Schaefer, presents a study done at England’s Loughborough University where they came up with what they called a Compulsive Exercise Test.
Briefly, here are the five key signs of being a compulsive exerciser:
1)   Rule driven behavior. Are you a failure if you don’t keep to a strict exercise regiment? Is it not okay to take a break once in a while? Do you skip other activities for your “mandatory” workouts?  
2)   Weight-Control Exercise. Do you work out mainly to control weight or reduce your body fat?Is appearance the only reason you work out? Are you counting calories and making sure you burn all of them in your workout?
3)   Mood Improvement. Are you running from your inner life? Are you exercising mostly to avoid difficult feelings and thoughts?
4)   Lack of Exercise Enjoyment. Are you doing the same old routine even if it’s a chore and boring to you? Do you beat yourself up if you don’t meet the high standards you’ve set for yourself?
5)   Exercise Rigidity. Is your workout routine fixed and rigid concerning the amount of time spent, the intensity, or when you must exercise? Is there perfectionism around the look of your body or your exercise routine? Must you exercise even when you’re sick?
It's much better to get help understanding and dealing with the underlying feelings and thoughts that lead to excessive exercise, even if they may seem in the moment to be unmanageable, than to wait for the body or other parts of your life to break down. You can begin addressing the compulsive behaviors by looking at the feelings and thoughts that drive the addiction through engaging in some form of twelve step group, psychotherapy, coaching, meditation, mindfulness practice, energy psychology, energy healing, a specific spiritual discipline, or other appropriate modality.
Have you known someone who exercised too much or too hard?
Please share, your comments make a difference for us all!

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