Angie Green, fitness coordinator at the University of Toledo Student Recration Center, says exercise can occasionally become excessive.
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Just sit still, Ashley.
Just watch the movie.
Her friends in the University of Toledo dorm pleaded with then-freshman Ashley Wallace, but she couldn't stop moving, even though she had just spent a good two hours working out at the UT Student Recreation Center.
“I was doing leg lifts and crunches and little jumping jacks,” Ashley recalls. Now a 21-year-old senior, she remembers being defensive when her friends objected.
“I really believed that they were jealous because they didn't have that energy,” she says.
Today, Ashley recognizes that she was obsessive about exercise. In her case, it went hand in hand with anorexia and bulimia, although not everyone who is “addicted” to working out also has an eating disorder.
It's true: Exercise can be bad for you.
But that's “bad” as in “too much of a good thing.” Bad if your workout takes priority over your child's soccer game. Bad if you have a stress fracture and you still believe you must run three miles a day. Bad if you think your world is going to end if you don't make it to the gym for a few hours.
Experts says that people cross the line when their view of exercise changes from something they like to do - or know they should do as part of a healthy lifestyle - to something they feel they absolutely must do.
Ashley says she scheduled her classes so as to allow her to squeeze in several workouts during the day. “I probably was exhausted, but I had a mental high that kept me going. I've never done drugs, but I imagine that's what it's like,” she reflects.
Ashley says her strenuous exercise routine gave her a sense of control - “You knew that other people couldn't do it but you could, kind of a superhero thing.”
Finally, she began to see her frenetic activity for what it was. Her insight came through the eyes of family and friends.
“Instead of walking, I would do lunges,” she explains. “My family coined the phrase `the Ashley Walk.'”
She began doing her lunge-walk in the dorm and then at work. As people called attention to it, Ashley realized that “it was kind of weird. ... It sent a little signal to me that that wasn't normal.”
When she started treatment for her eating disorder three years ago, the therapist told her she wasn't allowed to work out at all. Now, she exercises a normal two to three times a week, 30 to 45 minutes at a time. “I just look at my watch and say it's time to move on,” she says. “I'm completely comfortable with it. It doesn't control my life.”
Just about everything is good in moderation, notes Dr. Debra Boardley, a registered dietician and associate professor of public health at the University of Toledo. “You can kill a plant by not watering it or by watering it too much. Exercise is exactly the same. You can have too much or not enough. Either end of the continuum is unhealthy.”
Dr. Boardley says a compulsion to exercise can take longer to detect than its sinister sisters, anorexia and bulimia, because exercise has its good image working for it.
“So not as many flags go up,” Dr. Boardley says. Everyone agrees that making yourself vomit after every meal is a problem, but if you don't let a fever get in the way of your aerobics class, you might be seen as a pillar of virtue.
“I think what happens is that when people first start exercising, they see results and they get really motivated and that's how it can turn into exercise obsession - where exercise becomes their No. 1 priority,” says Angie Green, fitness coordinator at the UT Student Recreation Center. People like this may take two to three exercise classes in a row, or work out on equipment for three to four hours a day, or come in several times during the same day.
“I've seen it in private clubs and university settings. I think it happens everywhere. I don't think there's a typical age, and it's both males and females, all ages and fitness levels,” Mrs. Green says.
“I think every gym has one or two people who overdo it,” observes Joe Laskey, general manager at Bally Total Fitness on Airport Highway. “But in my experience it's uncommon - about one out of a thousand people.”
Dr. Dalynn Badenhop, who is an exercise physiologist, a professor at Medical College of Ohio, and director of the cardiac rehabilitation program there, agrees with that view.
“I think physiologically there are a lot of things that take place that indeed would compel people to want to exercise on a regular basis,” Dr. Badenhop says. Just back from an out-of-town conference that prevented him from exercising, he admits that, “I just don't feel like myself, not because I'm addicted but because it's just a routine part of my life.”
He adds that there are natural and healthy variations in the amount of exercise people do, and that there always will be those who go overboard on anything - be it exercise or cross-stitching. But those who truly can be described as exercise addicts “are probably a pretty small minority,” Dr. Badenhop concludes.
However, Dr. Roger Kruse says that, “It's probably more common than most people think.” He's the director of Sports Care sports medicine clinic on North Reynolds Road, head team physician at UT, and director of sports science for the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
Dr. Kruse says he most often sees over-exercise in people who have obsessive-compulsive personalities. “Most of these people are very bright and motivated,” he adds.
The problem is measured not so much in minutes as in its effect on one's daily living, according to Dr. Kruse. Is it affecting your job, family, social relationships?
Other signs are overuse injuries, too-rapid weight loss, or simply being unhappy. “They're doing the running that used to turn them on and they just feel blah or fatigued, because they're just worn out,” Dr. Kruse says.
“The best way to approach this is if your exercise is affecting your quality of life, or if other people perceive it as a problem, you should start looking at it,” he advises. “Bells should start going off” if a lot of people are telling you that you're exercising a lot.
It can be very difficult to know when you've become exercise-obsessed, says Darci Ault, health promotion coordinator at the UT Student Recreation Center. “The people on the outside are often the first to know. We can see in others what we often can't see in ourselves.”
And - no matter what the reality - what we often see in ourselves are wide hips, chubby thighs, jiggly upper arms.
“Ninety per cent of women struggle with some body image issues,” Mrs. Ault says, adding that the long, lean look isn't realistic or achievable for most women, no matter how much exercising or dieting they do.
Still, some strive for perfection, a quest that can become an exercise disorder, eating disorder, or both.
“You want to have the ability to look at yourself naked and say `It could be worse' - and believe it,” Mrs. Ault says. “A healthy individual understands that who I am is not about what I weigh.”
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