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Are You an Obligatory Exerciser?

August 15, 2005 04:31 PM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Author, Tennis: Steps to Success; Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (www.athletesperformance.com)

We don’t have to tell most tennis players about the benefits of exercise. But there will always be a subset of athletes and exercisers who take things too far, get exercise out of perspective, and eventually suffer physical or psychological damage as a result.

A recent issue of The Physician and Sports Medicine addressed the problems faced by “obligatory exercisers.” They are the people, according to three researchers at the University of Hawaii, who “refuse to interrupt their exercise schedules even when they are injured or when they know that continuing to exercise could cause physical or psychological harm.” In other words, their commitment to exercise becomes excessive. Studies have found runners, gymnasts, bodybuilders, weight lifters, wrestlers, and dancers are most likely to be obligatory exercisers. Research in the 1980s found that ten percent of runners fit into this category.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of obligatory exercisers involves the way they push themselves. Even when they experience a decline in performance, they will work harder. They can’t keep from working out at an unreasonable level even though they know it may be the source of their problems. They may even experience withdrawal symptoms if they can’t maintain their volume of exercise.

Below are some of the other possible characteristics of the obligatory exerciser:

  • feels guilty or anxious when a workout is missed
  • does not reduce training volume after medical advice to do so
  • focuses on reducing body weight or changing body shape
  • keeps extensive logs and records
  • structures social activities around one’s exercise routine
  • has little variation in training schedule

Obligatory exercisers may also be achievement oriented, compulsive, independent, neurotic, addictive, or a perfectionist, but not all experts in this field agree on the characteristics. Although technically different conditions, obligatory exercise and overtraining share similar characteristics, including anxiety, apathy, chronic fatigue, depression, impaired concentration, loss of self-confidence, insomnia, and muscle soreness.

What can the obligatory exerciser do about his or her condition once it has been identified and acknowledged? Several exercise scientists have suggested guidelines for preventing obligatory exercise. Here are some of them:

  • Establish appropriate exercise and training routines to prevent overtraining (with the help of a professional in the field).
  • Participate in a periodized program with pre-determined periods of recovery/regeneration.
  • Understand that unhealthy attitudes toward exercise, eating, and body weight often go together and can negatively reinforce each other.
  • Incorporate tapering strategies into the exercise routine.
  • Seek help from a sport psychologist (who may suggest relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, self-hypnosis, meditation, or massage).
  • Consider yoga or tai chi as an alternative or complementary form of exercise.

The good news for the obligatory exerciser is that the condition can be successfully treated. The person has to recognize that his or her behavior is not normal and not productive, then support, education, guidance, and therapeutic approaches can bring exercise, fitness, and performance back into the proper perspective.

© 2005 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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