Written by: Toni Foot
Exercise is a fantastic way to keep in shape and to keep your body fit and healthy. It can provide a positive method of stress relief, create opportunities for socialising, and give an individual a great sense of achievement. However, for some people exercise regimes become such a vital part of their life that they are unable to function normally without it and it becomes compulsive exercise. They begin increasing the amount or intensity of their exercise and become distressed if their routines are disrupted. The positive effects of exercise disappear when someone begins compulsively exercising as they are no longer satisfied with their efforts, they have reduced interest in social activity, and their stress levels rise whenever they feel their exercise is insufficient or ineffective.
Why is my child exercising so much?
Exercise encourages the release of endorphins around the body, making the person feel energized. As with any ‘mood booster’ this can be addictive as the person enjoys the feeling so much that they want to experience it more often. Eventually they find themselves exercising in extreme ways, affecting their physical and mental health negatively.
Alternatively it could be an effort to exert their control physically when they feel powerless emotionally. Teenagers are particularly prone to this as they are going through an intensely confusing and frustrating period in their lives. In this case, restricting food intake and exercising excessively make the person feel like they are in control because they can influence the way their body looks and feels. This is very similar to the emotions experienced by those suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
What are the effects of compulsive exercise?
Excessive exercise can cause damage to ligaments, tendons, bones and joints. Someone exercising compulsively will not stop exercise because of injury so these often go untreated or are made worse by further exercise. Girls may find their periods are disrupted or stop completely, and osteoporosis can develop. Compulsive exercisers often also suffer from eating disorders as they strive to improve the effect of their efforts. This can mean that exercise begins breaking down muscles rather than building them up as the body has insufficient energy from food to maintain the level of exercise. Even more seriously, the stress on the heart caused by excessive exercise and insufficient nutrition can prove fatal in extreme cases.
How do I know if my child is exercising compulsively?
It can be difficult to distinguish between a child who is enthusiastic about sport and one who is exercising compulsively. Each child is different and will need different amounts of exercise to stay healthy. It may also be the case that they are training for a particular event. As with any mental health problem, the deciding factor should be whether the behaviour is having a negative impact on their life. If you are worried that this is the case, you should seek further advice. Here are some things to look out for:
• Consistently exercising above the suggested healthy amount (approximately 60 minutes per day).
• Feeling distressed when exercise patterns are disrupted, even for a day.
• Reduced social activity because of exercise (choosing to work out rather than disrupt their exercise routine).
• Increasing exercise levels to compensate for extra calorie intake.
• Lack of pleasure from activities previously enjoyed.
How can I help my child?
• Seek support from professionals around you: your GP, teachers, or sports coaches for example.
• Show them how to maintain a healthy balance of nutrition and exercise by engaging them in your own routines. Let them help create nutritious meals and do exercise together in a fun rather than pressurized form. Also avoid making comments (even in jest) that could make a child feel under pressure to change their appearance.
• Be positive. Praise them for things other than sporting achievements so that they learn to focus on a variety of outlets.
• Self-destructive behaviour is usually a sign that someone is not able to cope with something emotionally so try to help them to address these issues directly.