Does Exercise Run Your Life?

By Paul Salmon, PhD, MS

From time to time, you hear people * especially those just starting exercise programs — express concern that they may end up looking like overly muscular weightlifters or rail-thin distance runners, as if they have little control over the fitness process and where it may lead them. Usually, this reflects a lack of appreciation for the time, effort, and dedication it typically takes to make significant gains in strength, endurance, or flexibility. It turns out that, whereas basic health-protective benefits of exercise are attainable for a comparatively modest but sustained investment of time and energy, moving beyond this into the realm of higher level strength building or cardiovascular conditioning requires much greater effort and time than most people are willing or able to sustain.

For some people, however, exercise does seem to gradually take over their lives. For some, this process may take the form of single-minded dedication to sports or athletic training programs that eventually pay off in positive ways without completely dominating their lives. For others, however, the end result can be an unhealthy form of compulsion, much like substance dependence or even addiction. Some athletes, for example, respond to the intense pressures of making a team, striving for starting positions, and excelling in competition by developing excessive training regimens that virtually consume their lives.

Ironically, this pattern can evolves into overtraining, a mix of physiological and psychological symptoms marked by fatigue, exhaustion, depression, immune system dysregulation, and impaired performance. Not surprisingly, rest is the most effective antidote. In an interesting way, overtraining may be the body’s way of self-limiting excessive, maladaptive activity, a protective mechanism that eventually gets triggered in the absence of effective cognitive controls. In some ways, overtraining is not really so hard to understand, because of the powerful motivation provided by rewards for those who eventually do succeed in our achievement-driven culture.

But you don’t have to be a high-performance athlete to run the risk of developing a pattern of compulsive/dependent exercise. In part, this has to do with the fact that exercise is linked to such a wide range of motivations, some very powerful. In addition to simply feeling good and being enjoyable in a very straightforward way, exercise can be an effective distraction from stressful life situations; a way of boosting self-esteem and belief in one’s performance capacity (‘self-efficacy’); an avenue for success that may be lacking on other aspects of one’s life; and so forth.

Researchers Heather Hausenblas at the University of Florida and Danielle Symons Downs at Penn State University are investigating this problem, and in the course of their work developed what they have called the Exercise Dependence Scale. They liken exercise dependence to the concept of ‘substance dependence’, as defined by American Psychiatric Association criteria (DSM-IV), and although considerable research is needed to validate this comparison, it appears to make some sense at a basic level.

Using terminology associated with substance abuse/dependence, they highlight the following behavior patterns as suggestive of compulsive/dependent exercise patterns:

* “tolerance”: steadily increasing the amount of exercise to achieve a given effect
* “withdrawal”: unpleasant side effects of not exercise (excess fatigue, anxiety, etc.)
*exercising in longer bouts or over a longer time period than intended
*desiring, but being unable, to reduce or control exercise
*spending excessive time in exercise preparation or pursuits
*reduced time for other customary activities (social, occupational, leisure)
*continuing to exercise despite a problem likely caused by exercise (e.g. running injury)

The bottom line? Determine if you are in control of your exercise patterns. Do you know when to stop? Can you periodically take time off? Is exercise the focus of your life? Do you enjoy it? Remember that moderation is a good principle to apply in this and most other aspects of life.

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Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S., is an Associate Professor at UofL specializing in Exercise Psychology. He is an ACSM-certified Health Fitness Instructor.

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