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How to spot the signs of over-exercising

This blog has been produced by Priory Group’s Arthur House team. Arthur House is an innovative eating disorder service based in Wimbledon, which provides an alternative to traditional hospital treatment.

Exercising can be beneficial to our health and wellbeing.  But for some people, it can turn into a concerning preoccupation that goes on to damage their physical and emotional wellbeing.

As it can be difficult for a person to recognise when the line has been crossed, we have outlined the signs of over-exercising to look out for if you are concerned about yourself or another person.

The signs and symptoms of over-exercising

When someone is over-exercising, they may display some or all of the following signs:

  • Exercising regardless of all consequences, such as missing social activities or important commitments such as school, college or work
  • Appearing to have a strong emotional attachment to exercise and becoming extremely anxious if they miss an exercise session
  • Compensating for missed sessions by doing twice the amount the next time or restricting their food intake
  • Often exercising alone and continuing to exercise when they are sick or injured

For someone who is over-exercising, their main goal will often be to lose weight or they will exercise to feel worthwhile as opposed to doing so for enjoyment or athleticism.

The dangers of over-exercising

When someone is over-exercising, they are likely to experience mood changes. Depression, anger, confusion, anxiety and irritability are all common emotions that a person will experience when their body becomes physically stressed.

Over-exercising can also lead to delayed recovery time and a weakened immune system. As the body struggles with fatigue and inadequate muscle recovery, energy that has been reserved for proper immune system function will redirect to overworked muscles and bones.

Females can also experience a condition called amenorrhea, where they start to miss periods as a result of their oestrogen levels dropping from over-exercising. This also happens if they lose too much weight as a result of over-exercising too.

Too much exercise can also increase hunger and food cravings which in turn can fuel an urge to binge eat.

How to support someone who is showing signs of over-exercising

If you are concerned that someone close to you is over-exercising, sit down and talk to them. The person may have been too afraid to ask for help, or their low self-esteem may have left them feeling that they don’t deserve support. This conversation can help them to recognise that you do care about their health and wellbeing and want to help them recover.

Make sure that the conversation is private and free from distractions. Be careful not to criticise or accuse. Instead, talk about the signs of over-exercising that have worried you; let them know that you love them and want to see them get better.

Be patient, calm, non-judgemental and supportive. The person may become angry or deny that they are over-exercising. If they do, let them know that you’ll be there to help when they are ready. You may also want to ask them to visit their doctor just to help put your worries to rest.

To encourage a person to stop over-exercising, you may also want to do the following:

  • Encourage them to let go of their rigid exercise schedule for a few days so that they can learn to respond to physical cues from their body instead
  • Help them to find an activity where they can appreciate their body’s strength, especially if they are exercising with the sole intention of burning calories and losing weight
  • Provide distractions such as coffee mornings, shopping trips or movie nights
  • Encourage them to practise rest and self-care. Suggest improving their sleep, journaling and meditating to help them break their destructive patterns
  • Many people rely on exercise as a way to relieve stress. Brainstorm other healthy outlets for stress management such as reading a book, completing a puzzle or doing a crossword

If you are concerned that someone is showing signs of over-exercising, you may also wish to speak with an eating disorder specialist or charity such as BEAT for further advice and support.

At Priory’s Arthur House – an eating disorder service in Wimbledon – the team can support people who are exhibiting challenging behaviour such as over-exercising. Through a range of group work and one-to-one sessions, which have been found to be highly effective for driving change, we can help people to develop a healthier relationship with eating and exercise.

Alongside Arthur House, Priory Group has a number of eating disorder and mental health treatment facilities throughout the UK that are able to provide support for those whose relationship with eating and exercise are disordered. If you would like to find out more, please call our enquiry line.

Reviewed by Rebecca Jennings (MSc ANutr), Dietician at Priory Arthur House  

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