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Exercising Too Much: A Disease?

ekoike's picture

Exercising Too Much: A Disease?

Whenever I step within a mile radius of a workout or exercise gym, an immediate alarm goes off in my head and I feel nauseous. Extremely nauseous. The agony of “working out” with countless torture devices and even thinking about dealing with the arduous journey up the long winded stairs in front of the Schwartz gymnasium was reason enough for me to avoid even attempting to step inside.

Even though it is extremely hard to believe for a gym-phobic like me, there are recent developments in an ongoing study to confirm that in fact athletic anorexia or compulsive exercise disease is emerging as a major problem within current society. Just as the name athletic anorexia implies, this problem is similar to eating disorders in the sense that those who are suffering from athletic anorexia tend to engage in this type of behavior since they have a mentality that through exercise they can gain more control in their lives. It can also even be further said that these people tend to measure their self worth through their athletic performance and try to deal with emotions like anger and depression by pushing their bodies to the limit [1].

Despite the fact that exercise is often given positive reinforcement by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who often recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity for kids and teens on most, if not all days of the week, recent studies have shown that there is an increasingly alarming margin of teens and adults who take this advice with more than a grain of salt.

What specifically causes them to push themselves to the limit?

Compulsive exercise behavior or athletic anorexia within adolescents and teens has begun to emerge as a major problem within current society. This type of behavior within teenagers is known to grow out of student athletes' demanding practice schedules and their constant drive and pressure both from external and internal sources, such as parents, coaches and peers, can cause healthy athletes to push too far and develop this type of fatal or life-threatening behavior. Within adults, however, this behavior can emerge from various different factors-dissatisfaction with one's body, low self-esteem, eating disorders, or it is even suggested that personality disorders like obsession-compulsion can cause athletic anorexia. Another popular theory that I believe is one of quite validity, is that people become addicted to elevated levels of endorphins, which are hormones that are released within the body that are chemically similar to opiates like morphine and heroin and create this sense of a “runner’s high”. This feeling of having a runner’s high becomes extremely addictive and can cause them to be constantly be returning for more. [2]

In a 1976 study conducted by Dr. William Glasser, an Ohio-based psychiatrist who studied the effects of long-distance runners and their “positive addiction” and found that they faithfully pursued what would seem to the uninitiated a rather boring pursuit, but were able to persist because they became "addicted" to it. Glasser referred to this addiction as positive in order to make a differentiation from the classic negative addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, bingo, etc. [3]

Despite Dr. Glasser’s claims that running became a positive addiction for long-distance runners, when does this form of addiction transform into this idea of athletic anorexia?

Athletic anorexia can eventually breed other compulsive behavior, from strict dieting to obsessive thoughts about perceived flaws. Some early signs of the emergence of true exercise addict’s type behavior may be when they begin to keep detailed journals about their exercise schedules and obsess about improving themselves. In addition to these signs, it is also shown that people suffering from this type of behavior tend to become extremely anxious when they miss a workout, obsesses over various aspects of their lives- from the cleanliness of their homes to their weight and seem to base their self-worth on how intense and how long their workouts lasted. It is often shown that unfortunately, these behaviors often compound each other, trapping the person in a downward spiral of negative thinking and low self-esteem. [1] In other words, this type of behavior isn’t just deteriorating their physical health, but it is also a physical manifestation of their mental insecurities and need to consult a psychologist in addition to getting nutritional help.

In my opinion, it is society’s constant discussion over the “war against fat” that causes insecurity amongst women and a sudden increase in athletic anorexia. We have become a society in which there is a constant parade within the media that seem to be splashed across every tabloid magazine, which causes us to be constantly be conscious of our weight. Instead of being able to embrace each of our own body frames, we obsess over small and rather insignificant aspects and torture ourselves over becoming an ideal that we must face, is an impossible feat. Until the overall attitude of the media on the issue of body image and weight changes, athletic anorexia will continue to remain a major problem that affects many Americans today.



[1] Gavin, Mary L. "Compulsive Exercise." KidsHealth. Nov. 2004. Nemours Foundation. 28 Sept. 2007 <>.

[2] Newman, Carol. "Over the Edge- Exercise Addiction." Find Articles. June 2000. Running & Fitness News. 27 Sept. 2007


[3] Benyo, Richard. "Exercise Addiction - When More is Less." Road Runners Club of America. 1999. Marathon and Beyond. 27 Sept. 2007


[4] Fick, Dan. "Exercise: Are You Addicted?" Health Topics. Nov. 2003. University of Iowa Health Care. 27 Sept. 2007




michael adam's picture

can you elaborate further?

can you elaborate further?

FatLossBlogger's picture


In my opinion, the key here is moderation. Too much of a good thing can be bad, which is why it's so vital to maintain a healthy balance in your life.

kev's picture


I am writing concerned about my girlfriend.
She is a really good runner, but has not had a period for 2 years now.
We have been working on a weights program and running program to help.I am a personal trainer and have been trying to do my best.
We been dating 3 years now.
She has always been active, but it has come to a point where it is controlling, she cant go a day without it, or feeling horrible.
She is also a vegetarian, and we are struggling to get protein and fat in.
I have given her an amino acid spray and she is eating a bit of houmous
Please can you give sugesstions
thank you

Serendip Visitor's picture

exercise addiction support

Hi there. I came across your reply to an article about over-exercising. I am the co-author of a book with a chapter specifically geared towards helping people confront those they think may have a problem. My book also has an extensive list of resources for sufferers looking to get help. You may want to check it out. It is called The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration. If you would like to speak further, feel free to email me at I am a recovering exercise addict. That's why I co-wrote this much needed book. I want to help people. There isn't enough information out there and it's such a hard issue to lick because society so greatly reinforces it. Maybe you can share it with your girlfriend.


Katherine Schreiber

Paul Grobstein's picture

exercise addiction

RM Hutches, one time president of the University of Chicago, is said to have said "When the urge to exercise strikes, I lie down until it passes." Its interesting that lots of biological things can be problems if one does too little of them OR too much of them. The cause/effect isn't a straight line; twice as much isn't necessarily twice as good. Instead its peaked at some intermediate value. Wonder why that is? And whether it makes sense to call all over-indulgences "addictions"? Are the in fact in some sense similar biologically?