Is excessive exercise harmful?

While consistent, moderate exercise improves physical and mental health, excessive exercise can be harmful. People with a predisposition toward certain anxiety disorders may develop exercise addiction and this can be harmful in itself.

Exercise is now seen as a potential healing too from mental health disorders, depression and so many other ailments. Evidence has shown that exercise and physical activity can alleviate or help manage symptoms of the two most common disorders—anxiety and depression.

So how can you know if you are addicted to exercise?  Signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Exercise becomes the most important activity in life.
  • Exercise is used “like a drug” to alter mood, at the expense of physical health and of meeting other obligations.
  • More and more exercise is required.
  • Withdrawal is experienced if exercise stops.
  • Exercise creates conflict in other areas of life.
  • Even after excessive behavior is controlled, risk of relapse is high.
  • Even in the face of detrimental effects, excessive exercisers will continue to exercise. Excessive exercisers may miss out on promotions at work or lose jobs, or damage their relationships as the result of their excessive exercise. Strikingly, excessive exercisers will sometimes exercise in the face of physical damage, even recent bone fractures. In extreme cases, excessive exercisers will remove casts from their ankles or feet in order to continue to exercise.

Treatment of Excessive Exercising

The treatment of excessive exercising is very simple. It is very important, to abstain from any exercise at all for some period of time. This will increase the excessive exerciser’s anxiety, but it also allows them to identify the psychological underpinnings associated with excessive exercise.

After a period of abstinence from exercise, the next phase of treatment is to identify and challenge errors in thinking and cognitive distortions around exercise. This technique allows patients to identify exercise as a way of purging calories or emotions. Once they realize this, they often can see the need to change.

Once an excessive exerciser has been able to work through, identify and begin to successfully challenge these symptoms, then it is time to re-institute exercise “Cardio” or “calorie burning” activities typically present the most anxiety, therefore excessive exercisers are initially reintroduced to low activity (walking) and non-cardio exercise (typically weight training). With a therapist present, the patient processes thoughts feelings and urges to go faster or for a longer duration or to increase their heart rate. Reintroducing exercise in a controlled way is often times very helpful.

Reintroducing cardiovascular exercises in terms of running, swimming, and cycling should be done under the guidance of a certified exercise physiologist. During these activities, excessive exercisers should be asked to identify and resist their urges to increase the intensity of their workout. This also allows the patient to get a sense of accomplishment if they can resist urges in the setting that they have in the past engaged in compulsive behaviors.

When an excessive exerciser is able to start to take control their activities, they develop an exercise plan, similar to a meal plan that might be used nutritionally. The patient is asked to create a weekly exercise plan in terms of types of activities, duration, where the exercises occur and under whose supervision. This plan is very important and should be carried out all the time.


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