EXERCISE Compulsions above and beyond the call of fitness
Poor body image or a need for control drive some to push their bodies too far.
By TRACEY D'ASTOLFO
Britney Papalardo started exercising when she was in the seventh grade because she felt she was overweight. Now a senior at Fitch High School, Papalardo works out three to four times a week in the summer and twice a week during school months.
Papalardo, 18, loves working out. "I feel so much better about myself after working out," she said while pedaling an exercise bike at the Austintown Fitness Center.
Many teens, especially girls, turn to exercise when concerned about body image. The benefits of physical activity are well documented, including lower risk of heart disease and obesity; healthy bones, muscles and joints; and lower body fat. It can also help lower blood pressure, improve mood and confidence and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
But for some people, exercise can become an unhealthy compulsion that drives them to work out obsessively -- sometimes several times a day.
According to the American Council on Exercise, the recommended amount of daily exercise is 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three days per week. Compulsive exercisers work out at least five to six days a week, for at least 70 to 90 minutes a day.
Jessica McHenry, 17, works out three times a week to stay in shape. A senior on the dance line at Fitch High School, McHenry said many girls work out because they are worried about body image.
Sociologists contend that images in the media send a message: Men and women are expected to achieve perfect bodies. The closer people get to the cultural ideal, the more they notice the flaws that remain.
Ashlee Chmura, 18, a cheerleader at Lowellville High School, said she can understand how a person can get obsessive about exercising. Chmura started working out right after her 17th birthday to lose weight.
"I think it's very, very possible [to get compulsive]. There was a point in the summer when I thought I could easily overdo it. It's real easy to get obsessed with your weight, because it's so 'in the media.'"
Desire for control
People who engage in compulsive exercise, also known as anorexia athletica, often do so to feel more in control of their lives. Exercise addicts are often plagued by anxiety and depression and may have a negative image of themselves.
According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc., the compulsive exerciser's main goal is to burn calories to achieve society's ideal body or to have the advantage in athletic competition.
Tessa Fairburn, 14, a freshman on the soccer team at Fitch High School, said she works out only to prepare for the athletic season -- never because of worries about weight or image.
"I started working out earlier than we had to, to get a head start," Fairburn said.
Athletes whose sport is focused on leanness and appearance, such as gymnasts, dancers, wrestlers, runners and swimmers, are among those who often tend to exercise compulsively, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Although men can suffer from anorexia athletica, the NCAA reports that female athletes are more likely to be affected because of pressure placed on females to be thin.
Potential for damage
Health-care professionals warn that compulsive exercise can cause more harm than good, damaging tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage and joints. The exertion placed on the body leads to exhaustion and constant fatigue. Girls who exercise compulsively are prone to osteoporosis.
Although it is hard to tell the difference between a healthy workout and a harmful one, people who think they have a problem should seek professional help. Advocates for Youth says it's important not to criticize someone with this problem or tell them they are exercising too much. Be supportive and help them find professional assistance if they are willing.