By: Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.
Heidi Montag may need a fitness psychologist. She reportedly spent the last two months exercising an insane fourteen hours a day in the gym! Let’s say she only really exercised half that, seven hours a day. Still, it’s a fitness psychology emergency for sure.
Madonna reportedly has also been described in the past as an “exercise addict.” Sexy title, attention grabbing headlines, and like all addictions, this one leads to life-sapping, health-eroding, social stumbling consequences as well.
The fact that so many compulsive exercisers also have an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, has led to the more official sounding title of this unhealthy behavior, “anorexia athletica.” Dr. William Glasser first described this exercise addiction in 1976.
How do you know if you or your workout chums have anorexia athletica and are not simply overdoing the gym scene or are just great athletes? Compulsive exercisers have poor self-image and they compulsively exercise for all the wrong reasons—principal among these is to control their body image. The exercise addicts among us have stress, anxiety, depression, and are likely to have some form of an eating disorder. They may be preoccupied with what they eat (or don’t eat), their (inadequate) caloric intake, and especially their (inaccurate) idea of what they think their bodies look like (which only serves to prove my favorite adage: “Don’t believe everything you…think.”).
* Are you constantly preoccupied with exercise throughout your day?
* Do you feel anxious or guilty if you miss an exercise session and believe it “must be made up?
* Do you avoid taking a day off even if you are injured or ill?
* Do you take time off from work or school to exercise?
* Lie about the amount of exercise you are doing to family and friends?
* Are you in conflict with others over the amount you exercise?
* Does your self-esteem depend on the amount you exercise?
* Have you lost 5% or greater of normal body weight?
* Are you ever satisfied with the exercise you did?
Sure athletes exercise a great deal. Compulsive exercise addicts don’t stop due to injuries while athletes do. Athletes rest when they’ve reached a goal. Not so with compulsive exercisers. Athletes, unlike those with anorexia athletic, focus on the win. Those with obligatory exercise focus on more exercise and body image control.
It’s an addiction, and like all addiction can be harmful to one’s health. If you know someone who has these signs and behaviors, draw them out in a collaborative, non-judgmental, non-authoritative, understanding, supportive way—and help them make up their own mind to get professional help.