Every trainer has at least one client that they might describe as a fitness fanatic. And it’s no surprise. Today’s outlook on health and fitness can often be summed up in a single word: “more”. Many committed gym-goers believe if a little exercise is good, then pushing themselves will undoubtedly help them achieve their goals faster. Thus, they engage in more cardio, more resistance training, and place even more emphasis upon food restrictions.

Are these clients simply high achievers? Or might they be engaging in exercise as a form of self-punishment or displaying compulsive behavior?

fitness fanatic

The energetic approach described above may be effective for a brief amount of time…and then reality strikes, with a vengeance. Symptoms of overtraining creep into daily life, quietly and insidiously: extra aches and pains, easily treated with over-the-counter remedies; curious levels of fatigue, remedied with highly caffeinated beverages.

Suddenly, this previously “fit” body has succumbed to injuries and maladies that refuse to dissipate on their own. Where did the process go awry? Or, more to the point, what exactly is behind this compulsive mentality?

Clients may admit to us that they count on intense levels of exercise in order to hold themselves in high esteem. Succumbing to relentless media messages, these individuals believe that the only effective way to exert dominance/control over their physiques is to work harder and harder in the gym. Sadly, this is the key ingredient in a recipe for disaster, or in our professional lingo, “overtraining burnout”.

How To Approach Potentially Problematic “Fitness Fanatic” Clients

As personal trainers, part of our job entails making exercise fun. Between cardio drills, HIIT, strength training and flexibility work, we must also include periods of active recovery, and actual rest days, in order to sustain the element of “recreation” as we help clients remain goal-oriented. If we sense that a dangerous exercise addiction might be creeping into a client’s psyche, we might choose to pose the following questions to him/her:

  • What are your reasons for engaging in exercise?
  • How do you feel when you arrive at the gym for a workout?
  • Do you find yourself in constant pain, fatigued and drained, hungry?
  • Are you seeing the results for which you had hoped?

If a client struggles – or hesitates – in providing answers, a problem may be brewing.

What Constitutes Exercise Addiction?

Several factors distinguish an average “gym rat” from someone addicted to exercise. As a prime example, nobody would accuse an elite Olympic hopeful of having an exercise addiction, and yet such an individual most assuredly trains with an intensity and frequency beyond what we should observe in our clients.

We easily understand that level of competitive necessity; but how might we categorize a runner who feels compelled to add extra miles to her weekly total following the occasional meal that includes unhealthy fats or excess sugar? Experts Hausenblas and Downs have chosen the following criteria to help pin down and identify signs of obsessive exercise:

  • Tolerance: consistently increasing the amount of exercise in order to feel the desired effect, as in a runner’s high or a personal sense of accomplishment
  • Withdrawal: in the absence of exercise, negative emotions such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness arise
  • Lack of control: failure of attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising;
  • Intention effects: inability to adhere to regularly scheduled/previously enjoyed routines (work, recreation, family, etc.) due to the priority placed upon exercise time;
  • Continuance: continuing to exercise despite clear presentation of physical and psychological problems.

If your fitness fanatic client exhibits one or two of these signs, pay close attention for more creeping in; if he or she displays them all then you can be fairly confident that you are facing a compulsive exerciser.

Jeopardizing Health

An individual addicted to exercise might briefly consider the potential negative consequences of such behaviors, but ultimately choose to ignore them. Scientists Bamber, Cockerill, Rodgers, and Carroll are firm believers in exercise addiction always proving secondary to an eating disorder. When exercise addiction and eating disorders present as comorbid compulsions, the eating disorder typically receives the focus of treatment, while the exercise addiction remains elusive. After all, many will argue that “exercise is good for you”…until, of course, it ceases being beneficial and turns down that slippery slope toward self-destruction.

Determining the Boundary Between Good Health and Self-Harm

The answer to this lies in the degree of conflict one experiences in attempting to ease off of exercise in the face of illness, fatigue or injury, or in one’s ability to still make time for other social and professional activities. Is your client passionate about exercise, or does he frequently have to fend off anxiety and panic attacks when forced to take a rest day or two? Is the fitness fanatic motivated by fun and achievement of positive realistic goals, or is she merely engaging in ritualistic, compulsive punishment?

Be on the lookout for the five aforementioned signs, as these will point you in the right direction should you find yourself dealing with a potentially dangerous situation. Remember that the trainer’s scope of practice precludes us from intervening and treating a suspected addiction to exercise. Certainly referring the client to a physician or mental health professional for help is in order.

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Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D. The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinsperation

Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!