Over Training: Unhealthy/Unbalanced Exercise

Exercise is considered by virtually everyone to be a positive behavior, even by those who do not exercise. Because it is a positive behavior, some individuals believe exercise is such a “good thing” that “one can’t get too much” of this good thing. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many individuals have exercise problems, which usually means that the type, frequency, duration, and/or frequency of their exercise is problematic. For example, many if not most eating disorder patients engage in exercise that is deemed to be unhealthy. When problematic, exercise has sometimes been described with terms such as “excessive,” “compulsive,” or “obligatory.” Some individuals have been described as having an “exercise addiction.” Not only is exercise sometimes unhealthy and problematic; the use of some of these terms has also been problematic. “Excessive exercise” is the term most often used, but its use does not always accurately describe the behavior involved. The term “excessive” is a “quantitative” term which implies that there is “too much” exercise. This description may or may not be accurate, depending on several “qualitative” factors. Recent research suggests that qualitative factors related to exercise (i.e., attitudes, motivation, emotions, etc.) are perhaps more important than quantitative ones in determining the appropriateness of one’s exercise.

The term “excessive exercise” can also be difficult to define, especially with regard to athletes. What is excessive in the sport world? Training loads in sport have increased significantly in recent years, and such training loads are believed by coaches and athletes to be necessary for optimal sport performance. Interestingly, however, such training demands can result in “overtraining syndrome” or staleness in some athletes, whose symptoms include a decrement in sport performance.

The use of the term “exercise addiction” can also be problematic. “Addiction” is a term that suggests that one’s difficulty may be at least in part biological, often out of one’s control, and can result in “withdrawal” effects (when the individual is prevented from exercising). The term “addiction” can imply that one is “powerless” regarding controlling or resisting the behavior in question. Thus, the treatment/management of addictions usually involves abstaining from the particular behavior (or substance in the case of drugs and alcohol). Obviously, most serious athletes are not willing to abstain from training.

If the aforementioned terms can be problematic, what might be a better term that could adequately cover, as well as describe, most exercise problems? One such approach was suggested by Powers and Thompson (2008) that uses both quantitative and qualitative factors to determine a healthy “exercise balance” for a particular individual. To assist an individual in determining if his/her exercise is “unhealthy/unbalanced,” the authors offered a list of signs and symptoms characteristic of such exercise.

If you or someone close to you may be at risk of engaging in unhealthy or unbalanced exercise, act quickly to get the help and treatment needed. Early identification and intervention can help prevent the possible negative consequences of unhealthy exercise. The Victory Program at McCallum Place is a special eating disorder treatment program, which may be able to help. This program offers specialized treatment designed for athletes to treat eating disorders and many other co-occurring conditions.

I really appreciate that the staff validates my thoughts and feelings before trying to work on them. They don’t just say ‘that’s irritational, just stop!

– A Former Resident
Marks of Quality Care
  • Eating Disorder Coalition of Iowa
  • International Association Of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP)
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
  • RenewED, Eating Disorders Support
  • Washington University in St. Louis