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Compulsive exercise: Is your teen overdoing it?

Riddle Hospital April 30, 2014 General Wellness

happy young women outside getting ready to exerciseThere’s no such thing as too much exercise…right? Not quite.

Although many parents struggle with getting kids off the couch or out of the house, there is a growing segment of adolescents and young adults who are consumed by another problem: too much exercise.

Compulsive exercise, also called anorexia athletica, is a state of mind in which a person no longer feels that they have the choice to work out. Rather, they feel as though it’s something that they need to do and struggle with guilt and anxiety if they can’t squeeze in a daily workout. Although exercise is important, this way of thinking is dangerous, says pediatrician Megan Speare, MD.

“For young people who are considered compulsive exercisers, nothing stops them. Injury, illness, a pre-planned date, bad weather…all of those won’t stand in the way of a workout,” says Dr. Speare, a pediatrician at Riddle Hospital. “Commitment is important, but this compulsive personality can be a sign that they’re dealing with some bigger issues.”

Exercise can help improve your mood, but many young people turn to workouts to help struggle with depression, disappointment, anger, or anxiety caused by other stressors like school, work, friendships, or pressure from society to look a certain way. This can be a slippery slope. Not only can rigorous and frequent workouts open the door to eating disorders, they can also lead to damaged joints, ligaments, and cartilage, disrupt the hormone balance, and put extra stress on the heart.

So how do you know if your teen’s exercise routine is a healthy one? Look for these warning signs:

  • He/she won’t skip a workout, even if they’re sick, tired or injured
  • He/she doesn’t miss one workout and, if they do, exercises twice as long the next time
  • He/she exercises more after big meals or eating more
  • He/she skips planned outings with friends and abandons their responsibilities in favor of more time exercising
  • His/her self-esteem seems to be based on how many workouts they’ve completed and how hard they have been
  • He/she feels anxious or guilty after missing a workout

If you notice symptoms like these, call your child’s doctor and discuss your concern. They may have some advice about how to discuss the issue, as well as what options are available to help address the issue.

“People who are compulsive exercisers need to seek professional help the same way that patients with an eating disorder do,” says Dr. Speare. “Their way of thinking needs to be addressed like anyone else with an obsessive disorder.”