In our health-conscious society, exercise is often perceived as a “good” addiction. Unlike drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or junk food, working out can produce a natural high while improving your cardiovascular health, increasing your muscle tone, and helping you maintain or lose weight. But for teenagers who are preoccupied with their body image, an obsession with exercise can have dangerous consequences.
What Makes Exercise Addictive?
Exercise addiction — also known as compulsive exercise, exercise bulimia, or anorexia athletica — is a growing problem among teenagers. Strenuous exercise triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins, which can increase stamina and provide natural pain relief. Endorphins are responsible for the phenomenon known as the “runner’s high,” a euphoric feeling that comes after an intense period of running. Exercise can also increase the production of dopamine, a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure and happiness.
For some teens, the rush of endorphins makes exercise addictive. For others, it’s the sense of satisfaction that comes from getting stronger, faster or more muscular. But for teen who are preoccupied with their bodies, that inflated feeling of gratification is just a temporary fix. In reality, teenagers who are obsessed with exercise often have low self-esteem and a poor self-image, visualizing themselves as too fat, too skinny or too flabby — even while working out to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion.
How Much Exercise Is Too Much?
Exercise addiction in itself is not an eating disorder, but this condition is closely linked to disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and orthorexia (an obsession with healthy eating). These disorders are also associated with a high rate of abuse alcohol or drugs.
For some teens, exercise addiction begins with a healthy attempt to lose weight or to excel at a favorite sport. But the following behavioral changes may indicate that exercise has become an unhealthy obsession:
- Your teen no longer seems to enjoy the activity but is still driven to exercise until he’s exhausted.
- Your teen gives up other activities, including schoolwork and hobbies, in order to work out.
- Instead of playing sports with friends, your teen begins exercising for hours alone.
- Your teen shows signs of physical exhaustion or dehydration, such as weight loss, dark circles under his eyes, dry skin, hair loss or sleep disturbances.
- Your teenager becomes depressed, anxious or irritable when he can’t exercise.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that children and teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise on most days. But teens with exercise addiction may seek intense physical activity multiple times a day, even if they’ve already worked out with their sports team or participated in a track meet.
What Are the Risks?
Eventually, the compulsive need to exercise can take a serious toll on a teenager’s health. Teens who exercise too much may experience symptoms such as:
- Severe dehydration
- Physical injuries
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Heart problems
Exercise addiction can increase the risk of other compulsive behaviors, such as anorexia, bulimia, steroid abuse or laxative abuse cautions the Nemours Foundation.
Where Do You Turn for Help?
It’s not always easy to detect the signs of exercise addiction, especially if you’re proud of your teenager’s athletic achievements. But if your teen is showing signs of compulsive exercise, it’s crucial to seek help.
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