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Exerciseorexia: When the need to exercise turns deadly

In this country, we are bred to believe that if a little is good, more must be better, right? That message is particularly reinforced when it comes to exercise.


IN THIS COUNTRY, we are bred to believe that if a little is good, more must be better, right? That message is particularly reinforced when it comes to exercise.

We are assaulted at every turn - magazines in the supermarket checkout lines, 30-minute infomercials and pop-up ads online all scream out that we're not exercising enough or, worse, that we're doing it all wrong.

No matter your size, shape, age or fitness level, the message is consistent: You are inadequate and you need to do more, be more or buy more.

Some people become so influenced by these subliminal messages that they develop "exerciseorexia" (also known as "anorexia athletica"), a compulsive urge to exercise at all costs. Compulsive exercise hits athletes, and former athletes particularly hard.

Take for example, a young woman I'll call "Becky" (not her real name). Throughout her life she had been an athlete: a distance runner, a gymnast and a dancer.

While her Olympic dreams had long ago been dashed, she still desired to maintain the look and image she had during her competitive years. Despite having graduated from college and working full-time, she spent nearly every available waking hour, when not working, working out.

She would push herself to near exhaustion and passed out in the gym on more than one occasion.

Sadly, Becky's family was unable to get to her in time, and not able to get her the help she needed. Instead, she eventually quit her much-coveted corporate job, and she became a popular group exercise instructor, which only exacerbated her condition.

While exercising too much may sound harmless, even oxymoronic, it is quite dangerous and can cause serious physical and psychological problems. Exerciseorexia can cause damage to joints, ligaments, tendons and bones; it can destroy muscle, disrupt delicate hormonal balance, stop menses, increase risk for osteoporosis and increase anxiety and depression.

Athletes, and especially female athletes, are more prone to compulsive exercise because of the aesthetic demands of their sports.

Dancers, gymnasts, distance runners and ice skaters are put under tremendous pressure to keep their body weight down and in check.

Becky, while no longer a competitive athlete, could not let go of her obsessive exercise habits, and she continued to spiral downward. Though under 30, after marriage she discovered that she was unable to conceive, and she also was diagnosed with osteoporosis and has the the bones of an 80-year-old woman (despite her deceptively fit appearance).

Here are the top three signs of compulsive exercise behaviors:

1. Social withdrawal: Exercise addicts will stop at nothing from doggedly pursuing their quest: neither rain, shine, sleet, snow, illness, injury, family functions nor friendly get-togethers will deter exercise-a-holics.

2. Overdoing it: If a little exercise is good, a lot must be better. Not so fast. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one hour of exercise for children, teens and adults most days of the week is recommended for good health. Exercising beyond what's recommended for good health may be a sign of compulsive exercising. Aside from athletes in training, anyone working out several times or hours daily is likely overdoing it, and doing more harm than good in the long run.

3. Excessive exercise plus extreme dieting: While not always the case, excessive exercise often goes hand-in-hand with extreme dieting, which could eventually turn into anorexia. Compulsive exercisers often exercise more, while simultaneously eating less.

If you suspect that someone you know is abusing exercise, be proactive and insist that he or she seek medical attention and advice from a doctor, or seek help from the Renfrew Center Eating Disorder Treatment Facility,