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Is There A Downside to Exercise?

Scientific understanding of mental health disorders is increasing—and exercise is emerging as a potent healing tool. Evidence has shown that exercise and physical activity can alleviate or help manage symptoms of the two most common disorders—anxiety and depression.

While consistent, moderate exercise improves physical and mental health, excessive exercise can be harmful. Experts suggest that this is an addiction that may have an obsessive-compulsive dimension and a genetic component related to a preference for rewarding behaviors. People with eating disorders and body image dysmorphia share many common symptoms with those addicted to exercise. People with a predisposition toward certain anxiety disorders may develop exercise addiction.

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.

Jennifer Merritt, 25, a fitness enthusiast who is pursuing her professional certification in Anderson, South Carolina, shared her experience:

“I had always been active during middle and high school, but when I started college, . . . I got bogged down with class- work and family and relationship problems. I turned to running as my ‘getaway.’ No matter what my day brought, I turned to exercise as my drug.

“I got addicted to running and started running way too much and lost a lot of muscle mass and weight. I would run about 11⁄2–2 hours a day, because I relied on the endorphins to make me feel good. [Running took] me away from all my stress or problems.

“I reversed it by realizing it was hurting me, instead of helping me, because I was losing so much muscle mass and weight. I lowered the exercise time and still felt the endorphins and realized time really doesn’t matter. Now, I work out about 45 minutes to 1 hour a day and get the same feeling. A warning sign to look for is if you keep wanting to add more and more time to exercise because you feel that it’s ‘not enough.’ Now, I say it’s a healthy habit.”

To view the full article which ran in the June 2014 issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal click here.

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