NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 12, 2005

People who exercise obsessively risk adverse physiological and psychological consequences, says Jane E. Brody in the New York Times. In a recent issue of the Physician and Sportsmedicine, psychiatrists and sport scientists from Hawaii describe what they have named "obligatory exercisers."

According to the Hawaii experts, an obligatory exerciser feels obligated or compelled to continue exercising despite injuries caused by overtraining and social isolation. Even when confronted with a decrease in performance, they will push their bodies harder to succeed.

While there is no clear definition of obligatory exercise, there are telltale signs exercise is becoming too important to a person and creating undue physical and psychological stress. Molly Kimball, dietitian at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation outlines these indicators:

  • Justifying excessive exercise as necessary to their sport and continuing to train even when ill or injured.
  • Neglecting other important areas of life, experiencing anxiety when a workout is missed and constantly talking about their sport, training schedule and diet.
  • Symptoms include apathy, chronic fatigue, decreased appetite, depression, hostility, mental exhaustion, mood changes, diminished self-image, impaired concentration, emotional isolation and disturbed sleep.

However, experts say obligatory exercisers may not readily admit to any of those symptoms and behaviors because of their need to appear healthy and normal.

Normal exercise activity entails 40 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise four to six times a week. Beyond that, there are no added health benefits, but there is an increased risk of exercise-induced injuries.

Brody says prevention is preferable but if it's too late, parents, coaches, friends or other athletes should encourage an obligatory exerciser to get help to regain a healthier perspective.

Source: Jane E. Brody, "Fit Is One Thing; Obsessive Exercise Is Another," New York Times, August 9, 2005; and John Draeger, Alayne Yates and Douglas Crowell, "The Obligatory Exerciser: Assessing an Overcommitment to Exercise," Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 33, No. 6, June 2005.

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