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Healthy or Habit Forming 

January 19, 2016

A daily dose of exercise is a key component of a healthy lifestyle, but when a flare for fitness becomes a compulsion the mental and physical side effects can easily become unhealthy.

Exercise addiction is a subject that researchers have struggled to understand on its own. It’s been observed in connection to eating disorders, specifically in female eating disordered populations, but its impact on general recreational exercisers remains misunderstood and potentially underestimated. A new research study lead by Krista Rompolski, PhD, an assistant professor in the Health Sciences Department, aims to change that and shed light on a condition that she expects is quite common. “I wanted to examine the research on exercise as an addiction, or compulsion, rather than a totally healthy behavior,” she said.  “There’s some research on the concept but there’s no specific criteria to diagnose it.”

Rompolski’s hunch that exercise can be addictive came from her personal experience dealing with a bad knee injury. “I had trouble not just physically, but mentally coping with it because it so interfered with my ability to do everything I enjoyed,” she said. Exercise was at the top of that list for her, and the mental struggle was by far the worst. She began to take notice of others like her. “I would look around the gym and see people with one arm in a sling bench pressing with the other and wonder how many people are affected mentally when they can’t (or shouldn’t) exercise.”

On a global level, health promotion is at a peak. Every which way you look, you can spot a Fitbit on a wrist, a sign about healthy eating or the poster child for physical fitness beaming at you from the largest billboard in town. The message is unavoidable – eat less, move more. Absent from view, and often mind, are the messages raising awareness for eating disorders or helping gym-goers to determine whether they’ve gone too far.

Rompolski’s research is some of the first to take a closer look at the eating and exercise habits of recreational adult exercisers to peel back the layers and understand why someone in this population may be compulsively exercising. “Almost all the research on the topic is done in populations diagnosed with eating disorders, or adolescent and college-aged women.” She surveyed 1,600 adult members of Drexel University’s Recreation Center – both men and women -- with general demographic questions, exercise habits, history of significant weight loss or gain, feelings about their weight and history of injuries related to overuse. Participants also completed the compulsive exercise test and the eating disorder examination questionnaire.

“To my knowledge, this is one of the first studies to look at compulsive exercise and disordered eating in an adult population of recreational exercisers. We got 425 responses – a 25% return rate!” Rompolski said excitedly. The average age represented is 37 and 50% of responses came from men, a group of particular interest. “I was really interested in looking at men because a common assumption with eating disorders or compulsive exercise is that it’s primarily a female problem. In analyzing my results I can tell you based on primary findings– men and women don’t differ much on the Compulsive Exercise test in our group, and only slightly on disordered eating,” she added. While the two sexes proved similar in the results of the compulsive exercise test, their reasons for exercising and eating behaviors are quite unique, and suggests that more research needs to be done in male populations.

The preliminary data is promising. Rompolski hopes to build on this momentum and continue to develop her research on the topic. Her long-term hope is for an increased awareness of disordered eating and exercise among recreational exercisers, and for sports psychology to be an integral component of injury care. She said, “A Physical Therapist or sports medicine physician isn’t necessarily trained to recognize or deal with someone’s depression or anxiety over their injuries, and having a baseline evaluation of how an injury or physical ailment impacts someone mentally could potentially predict whether a person is more or less likely to adhere to their recommendations.”