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Exercise Addiction in Men

When exercise becomes too much

Exercise addicts are high achievers

Psychiatrist Alayna Yates, MD, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, has seen about 100 men and women she describes as “obligatory runners.” They’re an unusually high performing, smart bunch, with an average of 18 years of education.

“We need people like this,” Yates says, “but we need to help them diversify. These people are locked into their regimes. They eat one meal a day, or eat exactly the same foods at each meal every day. They measure everything — their caloric intake, how much starch they’re eating. They’re overly focused and overly serious about sport and it messes up the rest of their lives. There isn’t time or room for relationships. They stop going to parties. They go to bed at eight so they can get up at four and run. There are divorces.”

It stands to reason that the best athletes would be exercise addicts — since their professional lives revolve around athleticism. But, says Yates, the best runners may or may not be the obligatory ones. “It’s just as likely to be the men who have jobs and go out running at night as it is the athletes. It has more to do with personality variables than profession.”

There seem to be as many definitions of addiction as there are addicts; but one thing they have in common is the repetition of a behavior past the point where it becomes self-injurious. In exercise, this means, quite literally, refusing to stop or even limit your regime when you’ve got an injury.

Addiction can also mean exercising at inappropriate times. “I have people who run in thunderstorms. I had a patient once who had to have a run while his wife was in labor,” says Yates

Still, it can be hard to diagnose exercise addiction in professional athletes: “I’ll say, ‘You have an Achilles injury. Why are you still running on that tendon?’” says Debbie Rhea, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University. “And they’ll say, ‘I can’t stop because I’m injured. This is my job.’”

Society’s role in exercise addiction

Some over-exercisers have what psychiatrist Diane A. Klein, MD, of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, calls a “primary dependence.” Others are anorexics who run to help complete their obsession with food and weight control.

To be sure, the population of exercise addicts is a bit different from that of, say, cocaine addicts. Exercise, like being thin, is highly reinforced by society, says Klein. “So for people driven to achieve, to be perfectionists, and to be in optimal health, it’s kind of understandable that they become excessive.”

Rhea works with male body builders who are preoccupied with their looks. Unlike female anorexics, who always think they are too fat, men with muscle dysmorphia, as the condition is called, think they are too small and scrawny.

“They want to get bigger and bigger and bigger, not in fat but in muscle size,” Rhea says. And they often become so preoccupied with their strength exercises that they lose their jobs, lose their girlfriends and wives, and neglect their children.

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