Compulsive exercise, also referred to in the scientific literature as obligatory exercise, is a psychological condition with a number of possible points of origin. As a general rule, compulsive exercise is defined by that level of physical activity that repeatedly exceeds the safe or usual limits for a particular athlete.
Compulsive exercise is a symptom common to two separate and distinct types of emotional disturbances on the part of an athlete: the presence of an eating disorder, or the combined effects of obsessive/compulsive behavior that stem from a narcissistic approach to personal fitness on the part of the individual.
Eating disorders are a well-known problem in society generally, as young women are frequently faced with media depictions of the female ideal that are difficult to emulate. Eating disorders become a particular concern for female athletes who participate in sports in which body image is important to performance success, such as gymnastics, diving, and cheerleading. Eating disorders are one-third of the often-described female athlete triad: amenorrhea, osteoporosis (the loss of bone density, generally after menopause), and eating disorders. Amenorrhea is the interruption or complete cessation of a female's menstrual cycle, usually caused by poor nutrition and compulsive exercise.
Eating disorders stem from circumstances in which athletes feel an irrational desire to maintain an ultra-thin build. It is common for these athletes to engage in seemingly constant physical activity to burn calories, over and above any commitment to a well-balanced training program. The compulsive exerciser with an eating disorder may often engage in the cycle of binge eating and purging by the use of laxatives or induced vomiting, which are the hallmarks of the condition known as bulimia.
When the athlete engages in compulsive exercise without a direct connection to an identified eating disorder, the athlete typically calculates personal self-worth by the value of athletic ability; such per-sons become addicted to a sport lifestyle of continual training, recordkeeping, and various obsessions that center around sport. It is common for these persons to make their training requirements primary to those of education, employment, family, or social obligations. These athletes commonly link exercise to their food consumption, exercising more if they eat more. They will often attempt to ignore any injuries, never permitting their bodies to completely recover from the stresses of training.
Compulsive exercise, coupled with the abuse of diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics, is also a hallmark of some athletes who compete in weight classifications. Athletes who are compulsive regarding training and exercise are most liable to become profoundly depressed if they are prevented, for any reason, from participating in their usual training.
Compulsive exercise in all of its forms places significant stress on the body. When the compulsion is combined with the binge/purge cycle of bulimia, additional strains are placed on the renal system (kidneys) and the general function of the cardiovascular system, due to lower than optimum fluid levels within the body.