NAPLES, FL - An activity disorder is an illnesses, in which the individual feels compelled to perform exercise to the point of over exertion and for lengthy periods of time daily. These people are called compulsive or obligatory exercisers.
People with an activity disorder possess a tremendous amount of control over their body with a “mind over matter” attitude that pushes their body’s beyond a healthy limit. The more they exercise, the “higher” they feel. The only trouble is, to exceed past accomplishments to feel better about themselves, they need to set higher-and-higher goals. These individuals define themselves by their exercise achievements. Consequently, their self-worth is based upon athletic or exercise performance.
Those with an activity disorder feel obligated to exercise, and will do so, despite adverse consequences to their body. They are obsessive-compulsive by always thinking about exercise or sports and working out for hours.
Carolyn Costin, director of the Monte Nido Residential Facility in Malibu, CA writes in her book, The Eating Disorder Sourcebook, “The overriding feature of an activity disorder is the presence of excessive, purposeless, physical activity that goes beyond any usual training regimen and ends up being a detriment rather than an asset to the individual’s health and well-being.”*
Apart from an eating disorder, activity disorders are more common among males than females.
Activity disorders are often accompanied by eating disorders, since exercise is used as a non-purging compensatory technique to lose weight. What makes an eating disorder the primary diagnosis over someone with an activity disorder without an eating disorder is that the person with the eating disorder is primarily obsessed with weight, food, and appearance, and only secondarily to the exercise as a means to an end (losing weight). An obvious sign that one has more than an activity disorder, but an eating disorder, is if the person engages in at least one other unhealthy weight control behavior, such as restricting food intake, vomiting, taking laxative, diet pills, or diuretics.
It is important to recognize that someone with an activity disorder will most likely deny their problem with rationalizations about why they are such avid exercisers. For instance, they might claim health benefits or they want to become the best in their area of sports.
Like eating disorders, activity disorders serve a function or a purpose in an individual’s life, whether one is aware of it or not. In a sense, these individuals become the disorder as they identify or define themselves according to it. The disorder controls them and they feel helpless in stopping their excessive exercising. Their whole self-worth is based solely on their exercise achievements.
Over-exertion in exercising can lead to a number of symptoms, some the individual ignores, such as feeling fatigue and emotionally drained, and experiencing decreased concentration and social withdrawal. They will ignore soreness and stiffness, claiming as their rational, “no pain, no gain.” There are medical symptoms that may be present without the individual realizing it, such as decreased heart rate response to exercise, decreased blood lactate, and increased catabolic (cortisol) response (muslcle wasting), among others. These individuals are so obsessed with exercising that they will continue to exercise despite injury. Complete rest without exercise is what is needed to heal an injury and improve other medical complications that may have developed.
It is important to point out that the addictive nature of this disorder causes the person to go through psychological and physical withdraw. They will exhibit depression, anxiety, and irritability. With this in mind, it is understandable how frightened people are to stop their exercise routines.
How do you approach an individual with an activity disorder to express your concerns about them? First, approach the person when you are not emotionally upset. Be empathetic, non-judgmental, and express your concern for the person’s health and well-being. Ask to speak to the person privately. Address your observations with specific examples. Let the person respond, and do not argue with what he or she says. Reassure the person that your point is not to take away exercise, but your concern is with their mental and physical health and preventing injury.
Although the individual will most likely be in denial of the problem, try to get him or her to agree to reduce the amount of exercise (be specific on how), and if necessary due to injury, to stop exercising. If the person fails to comply with agreed goals to cut back on exercise, parents should seek therapy for their children under 18. Coaches and others should notify parents to explain their observations and concerns. For people over 18, significant others should continue to express their concerns from time-to–time and encourage the person to seek professional help without nagging.
Coaches are in an especially instrumental position to help team members and students overcome activity disorders. Most importantly they can model and emphasize balance and healthy attitudes and behaviors. Furthermore, coaches can encourage a student to adapt healthier behaviors by telling him or her that if they do not limit their exercise as agreed upon, there will be repercussions, such as not being able to participate on a sports team. With many coaches having a strong rapport with students, they can be very influential in helping students change unhealthy behaviors for healthy ones. Coaches should make themselves available for talking to students, if they need to talk about problems.
* Costin, Carolyn. The Eating Disorder Sourcebook: A Comprehensive Guide to the Causes, Treatment, and Prevention of Eating Disorders. Lincolnwood, IL: Lowell House, 1999, p. 38.