Exercise is a relatively new concept in health. Only in recent decades, as a significant number of jobs have become sedentary, has the medical world realized the detriment of the lack of exercise to health.
The health news media spread the word about the need for exercise and helped create a new part of the virtuous life. The well-rounded, healthy individual must incorporate exercise into any daily regimen, so the message goes.
Although the concept has merit, the individual's well-being, in today's age, is always secondary to the power of the marketplace and money. Accordingly, business interests now dominate the exercise world, exploiting a medical recommendation into a guilt-inducing profit machine.
From over-priced gyms to exercise classes to communities proselytizing a new way of life, smart individuals created companies to manipulate people to spend money on exercise and to translate the modern need for an idealized version of health into monetary gain.
For people with eating disorders, the effect of a powerful exercise industry is more nefarious. Since exercise remains an unquestioned positive in today's society, there is still no room for the message about overexercise. The gyms and classes have no way to manage the person who spends seven hours per day in the gym or goes to four, five or six classes per day.
The medical effects of overexercise are cardiovascular problems, chronic dehydration, muscle breakdown and even kidney failure. Even for those whose symptoms aren't as severe, exercise dominates one's life and leaves no room for any other personal growth or relationships.
The first step towards addressing overexercise is to call it a problem. Exercise is necessary for our bodies to function, but that can mean walking each day as much as going to a gym or class. The idea is that our bodies are not made to sit exclusively. Moreover, the human body needs food to function every day, no matter the amount of exercise. The industry has coopted the concept of calorie burning to mean one deserves food only after burning energy. Separating food from exercise is a crucial part of discounting eating disorder myths.
Limiting exercise to a certain number of times per week and amount of time per day is also a way to recognize the potential detriment of overexercise. Without a way to acknowledge excess, the pervasive message that exercise is always good will triumph.
Taking these initial steps will also open the eyes to the eating disorder community that exercise must play as large a role in the eating disorder symptomatology as starving, purging or laxative use. When we as clinicians take overexercise seriously and devise treatment aimed directly at these symptoms, people seeking treatment will hear the message much more clearly.