When working out shifts from a healthy habit to obsession

Do you think it would be great to love exercising so much you couldn’t quit? Does the image of a svelte waistline, slender hips and shapely legs bring a smile to your face?

Think again. That image of beauty may be an unrealistic, media-provoked goal. And believe it or not, you really can get too much of a good thing.

For some people, exercise becomes an obsession, especially when combined with a distorted body image (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) or a fixation on a particular body part.

Why the obsession?

Robert P. Sprafkin, PhD, senior psychologist at Syracuse VA Medical Center, says, “With society’s values, which emphasize thinness and perfectionist fitness, one finds plenty of encouragement and justification for going to whatever extremes necessary to achieve these goals. We don’t find these patterns of behavior in cultures that have different ideals of beauty.”

Societal beauty ideals have a greater impact on women than on men and begin to affect women at an earlier age. Recent studies on body perception published in the journal Perception and Motor Skills showed that by eighth grade, 69 percent of girls surveyed said they thought they should be thinner, as opposed to only 25 percent of the boys.

As women age, these negative perceptions persist. A subsequent study that looked at 20-year-old men and women found that women not only expressed thinner ideal weights but also perceived themselves as heavier than their actual weight. Men, on the other hand, loosened up in their expectations and judged themselves lighter.

Based on these findings, psychologists speculate that most women diet and exercise because they’re dissatisfied with their body, while men appear to work out for different reasons.

“I exercise every day. I work out hard, no matter if it hurts—which it usually does—no matter how I feel”

Strength vs. shape

Chicago suburbanite Jim Janik exercises every day. He has a treadmill, a stair stepper, a rowing machine and free weights in his exercise room. “I hate missing a workout,” he says. But Janik isn’t dissatisfied with the way his body looks. “I’ll be 47, and I play a hundred baseball games a year. I have to stay strong to compete with the 30-year-olds.”

But strength had nothing to do with why Vivian Lynn of Georgia “nearly killed” herself at the gym. “I had always dieted,” she says. “When I saw what exercise did for my body…I went a little crazy.”

During this period, Lynn worked full time and attended school full time. She began taking exercise classes with a group of women from work and liked the results so much that if she had to miss a session, she turned on music and worked out for a full hour at home. “No matter how much class work I had or how tired I was, I had to do it,” she says.

Though aiming for different goals, both Janik and Lynn were driven by competition. Janik wants to stay strong to compete with the younger men in his baseball league; Lynn wanted to keep up with her friends and look good.

Lynn says of her coworkers, “We bought fitness magazines, new exercise clothes…. You know, the things that girlfriends do.” Lynn lived in pain during that time. “I was competing,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who would rather dance my own dance, preferably at home. But for some reason, when I got into that room full of women, I decided I was going to keep up.”

Janik doesn’t feel obsessive about his workouts. “But I am committed,” he says. “I exercise every day. I work out hard, no matter if it hurts—which it usually does—no matter how I feel.”

Eventually, Lynn turned in her exercise-class membership card for a less competitive environment. The comfort of her own pace, in her own home, on her own time became her respite.

When is enough enough?

It interferes with daily activities and relationships.

You believe that bad things will happen if you don’t work out.

You develop a perfectionist attitude toward exercise and your body.

You ignore the signs of illness, injury or fatigue and work out despite them.

You set unattainable goals (miles run, hours worked out, percentage of body fat, etc.)

You ignore friendships or satisfying hobbies in order to exercise.

Overcoming the anxiety

Sprafkin says a distorted body image coupled with fanatical exercising is analogous to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With OCD, recurring thoughts or unrealistic worries cause anxiety and a “ritual” is performed to relieve the anxiety.

Cognitive-behavior therapy can help in both of these cases. Exposure and response prevention are two techniques used to treat intense anxiety and obsessions. “Instead of avoiding the thought of being a few pounds overweight, the person would be asked to imagine that possibility over and over again, until he or she ‘habituates’ and is no longer upset by the thought or image,” says Sprafkin.

Then, for the response prevention element, the ritual the person has done to relieve her anxiety is eliminated. “This might be applied to exercise or body image problems by limiting exercise time or by not looking in the mirror or checking one’s weight.”

Some people can do these techniques on their own, says Sprafkin. But outside help is often needed initially because the person is accustomed to rationalizing the need for excessive exercise.

Regular exercise is healthy. But when a person’s desire to work out blocks satisfying relationships and enjoyment of life in other areas, it’s a serious problem. “It becomes a quality of life decision,” Sprafkin says.