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Exercise Addiction in Men

When exercise becomes too much
By Arthur Allen
WebMD Feature

Do you insist on rising at five to run each morning, even when your back is aching, black ice coats the streets, and your wife beseeches you to stay in bed? Do you only feel good when you’re training for triathlons? Is eating merely a way to replenish for the next race? Then you, my Spandex-clad friend, may have an exercise addiction.

Obligatory athletes

For the vast majority of us, exercise is a good that we don’t get enough of. But a small minority of perfectionist athletes are compulsive exercisers. Some call them exercise addicts, or obsessives, or “obligatory athletes.” As many as 10% of high-performance runners, and possibly an equal number of body builders, have an exercise addiction.

Thirty minutes a day of moderate physical activity is enough to help prevent things like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.  Exercise addicts tend to think that a two-hour run makes them four times as healthy. It doesn’t work that way.

Too much exercise can lead to injuries, exhaustion, depression, and suicide. It can also cause lasting physical harm. Your adrenal gland, pumping out hormones as you pound the pavement, can only produce so much cortisol at a time. Suddenly, the heartbeat you’d lowered to a resting 48 is up to 80. You now run for two hours, then three hours. But you can’t improve your 10K times.

Extreme exercisers have an extreme need for control

You can distinguish healthy enthusiasts from exercise addicts by the following trait, says Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England: “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives round their exercise.”

Excessive exercise, like extreme diets, attracts people who feel an extreme need for control in their lives. Like weight reduction, improved athletic performance is readily observable, Cockerill says.

But not everyone who likes to exercise a lot is an addict. At times, I thought my friend Matt was an exercise addict. In his 40s, he weighs what he weighed in college, and I often run into him at the local Starbucks after he’s just finished a 20-mile bike ride. But when I gave Matt the six-question Exercise Addiction Inventory, developed by British sports medicine expert Mark Griffiths, he fell far short of the cut.

Matt says, “My wife knows that if I don’t get a certain amount of biking in, I’m a pain.” He rides every Sunday for two hours with a group of friends, as well as two or three additional hours per week. But family comes first. And part of the pleasure he takes in biking is the opportunity it provides for socializing.

“Beer tastes better after exercise,” Matt says. “I think runners tend to be more solitary than bikers.”

Indeed, treatment for exercise addiction often includes encouraging patients to take up more social forms of exercise such as yoga and cycling instead of the solitary pursuits of running or going to the gym, which can be breeding grounds for perfectionist pathology.

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