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In the grip of an obsession

Compulsive exercising can lead to guilt and depression over missed workouts, a study of male college students shows.

November 18, 2002|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

The idea of college-age men overindulging in unhealthy behavior has received a good workout in everything from popular culture to scientific study. From "frat house" summer films to psychological research, campus men are almost always depicted as more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women are.

Now, an unexpected vice may be joining the list -- exercise, not in moderation, but to the point of becoming an addiction. Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville found that male students were twice as likely to exhibit signs of exercise dependency, such as guilt, irritability and depression over a missed workout as women were. The find was somewhat surprising because research has traditionally shown that women are more susceptible to body image problems than men are.

Two percent of college males exhibited symptoms of exercise dependency, researchers found, compared to 1% of college women. The study, published recently in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, is among the first to determine the rate of dependency, what some sports medicine experts call exercise addiction, among men and women.

"A person with exercise-dependent symptoms may plan to exercise for an hour," said Heather Hausenblas, an assistant professor of exercise and sport sciences at the University of Florida and a study coauthor. "Yet they exercise for three hours instead. It's exercising to an extreme."

The problem, which is thought to afflict less than 1% of the general population, is far from being an epidemic on campuses, researchers caution. Instead, experts hope the study will lead to a better understanding of gender and exercise dependency.

"There's so little solid information with regard to the condition that just about everything is new information," said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit San Diego-based organization that promotes national fitness. "Part of the problem is that exercise is generally viewed as a healthy habit, so people have a hard time believing it could become a serious problem."

The reasons for extreme workout habits varied dramatically. The men most at risk for exercise dependency were those motivated by a desire to improve both their mental and physical well-being, such as by boosting their energy level. Those who exercised primarily to improve their physical appearance could still become hooked on exercising, Hausenblas said, but were less likely to do so than the other group. The women most likely to become dependent on exercising were indeed those whose primary concern was body image, the study found.

As with more serious addictions, people who exercise excessively put their obsession first, often ignoring family, work and their own health.

In the study, 408 students enrolled in sports and fitness classes at the University of Florida were asked questions about their exercise habits and attitudes, such as what imagery they associated with exercise ("I imagine a leaner me from exercising") and their dependence risk ("I would rather exercise than spend time with family or friends").

The researchers said one of the primary signs of exercise dependency is a "playing through the pain" attitude, such as a runner with bad shin splints who maintains or even increases his or her run distances.

Other red flags include guilt over missed workouts, consistently joyless workouts, sports-related injuries that don't seem to heal and an inability to cut back on exercise despite repeated attempts.

The study's authors, however, cautioned against generalizations based on their findings, and said much more research is needed for a complete picture about exercise dependency, particularly why the sexes seem to be driven by different motives.

People suspected of having an exercise addiction, Hausenblas said, should be confronted in a gentle way about their exercise habits and then urged to seek help from a professional counselor.

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