How to tell that your exercise obsession is getting unhealthy

Kristine Tarbert
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer

Living an active and healthy lifestyle is definitely a way of life, but did you know that becoming too obsessed with working out can actually be damaging your health?

Even worse, being obsessed with exercising could even be the result of an underlying eating disorder, according to Australian psychiatrist Dr Phillipa Hay.

Dr Hay, director of Wesley Eating Disorders Centre, believes a compulsive drive to exercise excessively may often stem from as yet undiagnosed weight- or food-related issues.

“Obsessive exercising is common in people with eating disorders but we know that it is possible to have obsessive exercising alone as a problem,” Dr Hay tells Be.

Photo: Getty

“It’s a serious problem when exercising is driven by a fear of weight gain, or compensating for overeating or binge-eating, or your mood decreases if you can’t exercise.”

A serious obsession

Studies have shown that compulsive exercise occurs in half of all patients with an eating disorder – more specifically, in up to 80 per cent of anorexia nervosa patients, and 57 per cent of patients with bulimia.

Obsessive-compulsive exercise also causes higher levels of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, in people with an eating disorder, and in some studies, it has also been related to increased rates of suicide and self-harm, according to Dr Hay.

But she says it’s not about the amount of exercise you do.

Photo: Getty

“We do recommend that people exercise regularly. It’s more about the compulsive nature and how you feel if you then can’t exercise, that it becomes a problem,” she tells us.

“How would you feel if I told said you couldn’t go to the gym tomorrow? Could you go a day without it?”

Signs to look out for

Dr Hay says it’s important to be able to pick up on the signs or symptoms in yourself, friends and family, before things get out of hand. If it goes too far, mental health interventions and therapy could be required.

Mood changes: Exercise becomes ‘unhealthy’ when the inability to exercise causes mood changes. Feelings of guilt, anger or irritability may arise when a person is unable to engage in physical activity.

Fear of stopping or reducing exercise: People may have an overwhelming fear of the negative consequences that may result if they stop or reduce exercise; such has becoming fat, or a feeling as of an inability to cope. Not being able to exercise may cause heightened levels of anxiety.

Strict exercise rules: A common sign of obsessive-compulsive exercise is following rigid exercise rules to avoid negative consequences. These are often linked with food consumption. For instance, a person might decide they should spend extra time exercising if they ate something unhealthy, or miss a meal if they do not exercise.

Photo: Getty

Setting difficult exercise goals: A fitness goal such as losing excess weight, training for a race or gaining muscle is healthy. Exercise goals become unhealthy when they are unrealistic and inflexible. Failure to meet high standards often leads to self-criticism, heightened anxiety and negative feelings.

Exercising in poor health or circumstances: While an injury or illness may cause a healthy exercising person to rest and recover, an obsessive-compulsive exerciser will continue to workout even when it is detrimental to their physical health. The compulsion will motivate them to exercise even in bad weather despite the increased risk of other infections or ailments.

Photo: Getty

Skipping other engagements: However, the most serious sign Dr Hay says to look out for is when exercising starts taking priority in a person’s life over anything else. People may spend too much time thinking about, planning and engaging in exercise that they miss social engagements, or it gets in the way of work or study.

“That’s when it becomes a solitary behaviour where someone is doing 100 push ups in their room alone in the middle of the night and that’s not healthy,” Dr Hay says.

“When it takes priority all the time and it starts impacting your life and your relationships, and how you relate to others you should seek help.”

What can you do

Dr Hay has a simple message – unhealthy exercise is unhappy exercise.

“It’s more than just telling someone they can’t exercise, we want them to exercise, but just do it in a happy and healthy manner,” she says.

“It’s all about the way they relate to exercise, so maybe it’s a good idea to change things to make them more positive. For example, instead of solitary work in a dark gym, join a team sport like netball, get outside into the sunshine, and most importantly build relationships with people.”

For confidential support about eating disorders and body image issues you can free call the Butterfly Foundation National Hotline on 1800 33 4673 or visit their website.

If you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression contact Beyond Blue, Batyr or PANDA for support.

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