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Exercise can hurt us or help us, compulsive exercise hurts us

When 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?

Compulsive 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.

In 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.

While 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 guideline:

General Exercise
Well Trained Athlete
Total number of exercise sessions per week
4 - 6
As few as 4 during an easy week or recovery week. As many as 10 during maximal weeks. (2 sessions per day on some days)
As few as 4 during a recovery week. As many as 12-15 during maximal weeks. (2-3 sessions in one day on some days)
Total time for one exercise session
As little as 3 to 10 minutes for sedentary. Up to 60 minutes total as fitness improves.
20 minutes for short recovery sessions. Up 60 to 90 minutes otherwise.

20 minutes for short recovery sessions. Typical sessions are 60 to 120 minutes. Endurance athletes will exercise for 3 to 4+ hours at times.

Total hours of exercise per week
As little as 30 to 50 minutes. Up to 5 hours as fitness improves.
3 - 4 hours during recovery week, Up to 10 hours otherwise.

4 - 5 hours during recovery week. Up to 20+ hours at times. Average is 8 - 15 hours.

Required day's off
2-3 in 7, more when fatigued
1 in 7/ 2 in 10, more when fatigued
1 in 7/ 2 in 10, more when fatigued

Percentage of time for easy - moderate exercise compared to intensive exercise.

(Easy-moderate/ hard)

100% easy to moderate. Complete absence of maximal or sub-maximal exercise intensity.
90/10 most of the time. 80/20 one week per month.
80/20 most of the year. Limited periods of 70/30 throughout the year
  • Rarely or never two hard exercise days in a row.
  • Make small increments in training intensity and volume over long periods (1% - 2% every 1 or 2 weeks, athletes can do more at times.)

Sometimes a trainer/ coach plays a part in promoting excessive exercise (click 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.

A 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".

Adding 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 and compulsive.

Necessary training practices that can be managed in either a healthy or unhealthy way:

  • keeping detailed training records
  • Knowing how many calories are consumed during the day
  • Commitment to a training plan
  • Passing up social occasions in favor of training and competing

Each of these can either be a sign of compulsive behavior or healthy behavior that is part of normal athletic preparation.

The 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.

How do we tell the difference between compulsive exercise habits healthy exercise habits?

  Compulsive (Obligatory) Exerciser Healthy Exerciser
Motivation Motivated by guilt and anxiety and will not be truly happy during training or competition. Motivated by personal achievement and the enjoyment of training and competing.
When not training enough If 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. Will simply increase training and look forward to better results.
Use of training journal Will 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. Will 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.
Downward trend in performance Perceived 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. Perceived 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.

The 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.

Typically 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.

The 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.

I 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.

The 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 works.

What can be done to help the obligatory exerciser?

"A person is out of control when they can't stop doing things that harm them"

Because 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.

A 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.

Overdoing 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.

These 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

If 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.

This 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.

This 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 health professional.

2004 Cris LaBossiere Rhino Fitness www.rhinofitness.ca


Click here for an article on compulsive exercise from Santa Clara University

New Yorks times article

Copyright 2004 Rhino Fitness. All rights reserved.
For more information contact: clabossiere@rhinofitness.ca