can hurt us or help us, compulsive exercise hurts us
a persons regular exercise routine does not provide the results
that it should, even at times causing injury, what motivates
that person to continue following that program with religious
tenacity with the expectation that things will change even
if they keep doing the same thing?
exercise, also called obligatory exercise and anorexia
athletica, may be defined best by a persons emotional
state: a person feels compelled to exercise not by free will
but to avoid guilt and anxiety that arise when exercise is
not done. This person may consistently put off friends and
family time for training, exercise through illness and injury,
and deny that their actions are harmful.
this article I refer to athletes for the example of compulsive
exercise, but any person can develop this downward spiral
that is difficult for a person to recognize in themselves.
this article focuses on the mental and emotional component
of compulsive exercise, it's important to know what the healthy
limits of exercise intensity and volume are. Here is a basic
number of exercise sessions per week
few as 4 during an easy week or recovery week. As many
as 10 during maximal weeks. (2 sessions per day on some
few as 4 during a recovery week. As many as 12-15 during
maximal weeks. (2-3 sessions in one day on some days)
time for one exercise session
little as 3 to 10 minutes for sedentary. Up to 60 minutes
total as fitness improves.
minutes for short recovery sessions. Up 60 to 90 minutes
minutes for short recovery sessions. Typical sessions
are 60 to 120 minutes. Endurance athletes will exercise
for 3 to 4+ hours at times.
hours of exercise per week
As little as 30 to 50 minutes. Up to 5 hours as fitness
- 4 hours during recovery week, Up to 10 hours otherwise.
- 5 hours during recovery week. Up to 20+ hours at times.
Average is 8 - 15 hours.
in 7, more when fatigued
in 7/ 2 in 10, more when fatigued
in 7/ 2 in 10, more when fatigued
of time for easy - moderate exercise compared to intensive
easy to moderate. Complete absence of maximal or sub-maximal
most of the time. 80/20 one week per month.
most of the year. Limited periods of 70/30 throughout
or never two hard exercise days in a row.
small increments in training intensity and volume over long
periods (1% - 2% every 1 or 2 weeks, athletes can do more
a trainer/ coach plays a part in promoting excessive exercise
here for related article), and sometimes we are our own
worst enemy. In my coaching practice I have spoken to many
people with athletic aspirations, and others looking to drop
a few pounds and increase general fitness. Regardless of the
goal, I frequently come across the same underlying problem
in many; a self-defeating attitude intertwined with denial
of the fact that they are harming themselves with excessive
exercise, or setting themselves up to fail by having high
ideals of success then not completing the actions required
to achieve that success (or the goals are too unrealistic
in the first place). Social position and personal achievement
does not seem to make a person immune to having difficulty
developing a healthy mentally balanced perspective on exercise
and eating; although many compulsive exercisers are high achievers
when they're not injured.
compulsive exerciser may believe that they don't have a problem
and that their "performance" places them above non-athletes,
and that non-athletes most likely cannot comprehend their
plight. I have noticed this in many athletes and it certainly
makes it seriously difficult to even begin helping someone
who has fallen into this state. I have experienced extremely
argumentative and defensive, emotional responses when attempting
to bring this issue to light with a compulsive exerciser,
and other coaches have reported the same experience as well.
This really is a serious issue that is extremely difficult
to begin resolving. What is especially difficult is the athlete
will often perceive a person who is trying to help them as
an abrasive intruder that is trying to control them and say
bad things about them. This is part of the delusion, if you
will, that may be present with an "obligatory exerciser".
to the challenge is that some of the very things that the
obligatory exerciser does out of compulsion are the same things
a healthy exerciser will do with proper athletic training,
the difference being the obligatory exerciser becomes obsessive
training practices that can be managed in either a healthy
or unhealthy way:
detailed training records
how many calories are consumed during the day
to a training plan
up social occasions in favor of training and competing
of these can either be a sign of compulsive behavior or healthy
behavior that is part of normal athletic preparation.
problem with this is those who are not compulsive exercisers
may shy away from staying committed to training because it
may seem like they are becoming compulsive, when really they
are managing normal training and dealing with expected up's
and down's. To perform better, certain exercise must be done,
but not to a point of negative return.
do we tell the difference between compulsive exercise habits
healthy exercise habits?
by guilt and anxiety and will not be truly happy during
training or competition.
by personal achievement and the enjoyment of training
not training enough
merely perceives they are training too little they
will mentally and physically punish themselves by admonishing
themselves and adding extra training to make up for what
they perceive as lost training time.
simply increase training and look forward to better results.
of training journal
perceive records of days off and records of lesser performance
as actions that require reprimand, and will feel guilty,
followed by feeling anxious to do extra training.
use journal to watch for trends that indicate too much
or too little training, and feel comfort in knowing they
can take days off or add more training to suit the circumstances.
trend in performance
as an indication to train more. Feels guilty for not performing
and not training enough. Feels anxious to train more.
Problem is addressed with more training.
as an indication of training too much. Does not feel guilty
or anxious, but rather relief that problem was identified.
Problem is addressed with recovery.
actions of the
obligatory exerciser cause
them to become trapped in this common cycle:
With denial being prominent in compulsive - addictive behavior,
the obligatory exerciser may comment that they do not feel
guilty when they miss exercise, and that they realize the
importance of recovery, when in fact they do feel guilty and
clearly do not take necessary time off. It is easy to spot
the obligatory exerciser because their actions will often
not match their words.
though a compulsive exerciser will talk more about their injuries
and how they just can't seem to get back to a non injured,
better performing state.
obligatory exerciser may reject a controlled program that
is designed to help them recover by claiming ironically that
the program is too technical and controlled, further claiming
that they don't want to get caught up in such a routine, when
in fact they currently compulsively practice an insidiously
controlled program of their own doing.
have noticed that when attempting to come back from injury
the obligatory exerciser will often add 10 to 20% more intensity
or duration (at minimum) to the rehabilitation exercise their
coach or therapist prescribed them. In the end the athlete
gets back into the same rut and begins another cycle of delusion,
denial, and compulsive behaviors while being adamant that
they are cutting back and doing all the necessary therapy,
when in fact they are not. Interestingly the athlete may claim
the new program "didn't work for them" when in fact
they did not follow the new program. The state of delusion
and denial allows the obligatory exerciser to make these claims
and believe them.
athlete will complain that they have "tried everything"
and that "nobody understands" (those trying to help
the athlete), and the athlete will state they can't figure
out why they don't get better. Even when delivered point blank,
"You train too much and this causes your injuries. After
your injuries begin to heal from forced time off, you train
too hard too soon, aggravating your injury again." The
denial-based response is, "no I don't", or some
story explaining how they did everything right and nothing
can be done to help the obligatory exerciser?
person is out of control when they can't stop doing things
that harm them"
the obligatory exerciser is often injured and unhealthy both
physically and emotionally, finding a solution for these individuals
is very important. The first step would include the athlete
recognizing that they are out of control and causing themselves
harm by their actions. This is easier said than done, as the
obligatory exerciser will be immersed in compulsive practices
that appear to have them in control of their training when
in fact it is the delusion of control that is controlling
them. A person is out of control when they can't stop doing
things that harm them. Along with other important steps that
include seeking counseling or a coach that understands these
issues is the realization that only changing their actions
will change their results. Obligatory exercisers believe that
continuing the same pattern will somehow cause a different
result. Once the athlete can move past this and begin implementing
different actions, (less training), then the athlete will
be doing something that will begin to help them immediately.
person may suffer the consequences of obligatory training
without being in a full-blown mega exercise routine. Many
times an athlete will train with an anxious desire to exercise
and achieve a goal, but the exercise is highly randomized
and jumps from one extreme to another with little continuity
or planning, but is perceived by the athlete as being complete
training. The anxiety to perform clouds judgment causing the
athlete to believe their randomized intensive training is
controlled and organized. Although a lower volume of training
is evident in these individuals, they will still deny that
their training is unrealistic and out of control, and still
feel guilt and anxiety when they don't exercise in ways they
have deemed are necessary. This athlete is still susceptible
not only to injury and random performance results, but also
to the emotional anguish that comes in the guilt and anxiety
they feel when they either miss training sessions or their
continuance of the same training does not bring about the
changes they desperately seek.
it is something that most people who exercise have experienced
more than once. If a person can't find a way out, and a spiral
of compulsive addictive behaviors emerge, they may become
what is defined as an obligatory exerciser.
habits are reversible; it takes a lot of patience and understanding.
Most importantly it requires the athlete facing their own
truth in recognizing that they alone are the cause of their
injuries and performance problems, and that only by changing
their actions can they change their results. The first few
attempts in helping an obligatory exerciser usually fail,
and may cause the athlete to divorce themselves from the people
trying to help them. However, the person still needs help.
I hope writing about what I have observed in coaching can
serve to help some readers. - Cris LaBossiere
you are reading this and see that you may be an obligatory
exerciser, or perhaps are beginning to form some of these
habits, talk to a coach, physician or counselor to help you
gain a healthier perspective. If you know someone in this
state, avoid getting caught up in circular augments with them,
print out this article for them, and help them realize they
need help to gain a healthy perspective on exercise.
article may be freely copied in its complete form as long
as it is not altered in any way and all copyright information
at bottom is included in the copy.
article is not intended to diagnose or treat any injury or
illness mental or physical. For help with injuries, training
advice, or mental health, contact your physician and a mental
2004 Cris LaBossiere Rhino Fitness www.rhinofitness.ca
here for an article on compulsive exercise from Santa
Yorks times article