Exercising to extremes Severe emotional, social problems can be the result By Robert Brody

November 20, 1990|By Los Angeles Times Syndicate

A 37-YEAR-OLD LAWYER who runs about 70 miles a week recently took a woman out for dinner on a first date.

Much to her surprise, he jumped out of a cab seven miles from the restaurant, declaring that he was going to run the remaining distance and would meet her there in about 45 minutes. He felt he had to get in his nightly run, even on a date.

The woman was so appalled by his behavior that she took the cab straight home.

While most fitness buffs don't go to such extremes, by most accounts exercise addiction is an increasingly serious phenomenon.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that in 1989 more than 17 million Americans suffered at least one injury related to sports training or competition, and many were due to exercising in excess.

Such overuse injuries include stress fractures, shinsplints, pulled hamstrings, tendinitis and rotator-cuff tears.

Also apparently on the increase are chronic fatigue, eating disorders, vitamin deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, severe weight fluctuations and insomnia all disorders that may be associated with exercising too much.

A recent case illustrates just how far exercise addicts will go. A few years ago, a 45-year-old runner given to overextending himself entered a long-distance race wearing a T-shirt imprinted with the message, "You have not run a good marathon unless you have dropped dead - Pheidippides."

Legend has it that in 490 B.C., Pheidippides, the original marathon man, died minutes after running more than 20 miles to Athens to announce a victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon.

Ironically, a week after entering the race, the middle-aged runner with the T-shirt collapsed during a long run, dead from coronary heart disease. It turned out that he had long ignored such distressing symptoms as severe chest pains.

Addiction to exercise also exacts a toll beyond physical damage. Individuals who exercise compulsively may be prime candidates for developing severe emotional and social problems.

A study of competitors in the New York City Marathon several years ago revealed a divorce rate four times higher than that of the general population, implying that some marathoners are too preoccupied with running to sustain a marriage.

A University of Wisconsin study by sports psychologist William Morgan found that "addicted" runners keep on hitting the road even at the risk of compromising physical health, family relationships and jobs.

Exercise addiction is a syndrome characterized, above all, by an extreme need to exercise and a tendency to exercise too much.

Exercise addicts have little or no concept of when to stop working out, and will keep on doing so despite desperate fatigue, pain and an array of progressively worsening injuries.

It's a "good" habit regular exercise that has turned into a "bad" one.

"Exercise addicts work out so hard and so often because they feel they have to they're simply unable to go without," says Harvey N. Dulberg, a Brookline, Mass., sports psychologist who has counseled elite and recreational athletes for more than 20 years.

"If you exercise for fun, you can miss a workout without remorse. But if you're compulsive, you feel it's a sin," he says.

The basic credo behind this behavior: more is better, only too much is ever enough, and nothing succeeds like excess.

The paradox, of course, is that those who train hardest often damage themselves most. Extravagant efforts to build up strength and stamina instead induce weakness and exhaustion.

Ultimately, the drive for self-improvement comes at the expense of general health and well-being. Exercise extremists inevitably discover that more is merely more.

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