Are your clients at risk of over-exercising?

by Dr Elizabeth Celi

How healthy is this training?

I’d like to introduce you to Dave – he loves working out, getting ripped and sweating hard. You’ll typically see him training at 6am, starting off with an indoor cycle class, before heading for the weights. An hour later he walks out from his last set, feeling pumped. Dave works near the gym, so he makes the most of his lunch break by returning for another quick session. If he’s got time, he’ll have a quick bite to eat; otherwise, he’ll skip lunch, making up for it with a quick protein shake later on.

Dave feels a bit more edgy about his deadlines today and leaves work promptly so that he can get another quick workout in to vent his frustrations before heading home. He repeats the same routine the next day, working on different muscle groups. He’s got too much work on to get to the gym during his lunch break on the third day, but he makes up for it with a few extra sets in the evening.

Now meet Kylie. She goes out for lunch with friends and chooses a healthy meal option. When her meal arrives she feels there is too much oil in the side salad and that the fish tastes greasier than she would have liked, but eats it anyway, deciding to skip her afternoon snack of fruit and nuts to balance out her calorie intake. She also decides to swing by the gym that evening, despite not having planned to, just to burn off any excess calories she may have had today. She’s trained consecutively for the last four days and her muscles are feeling a little sore, but she figures that a small dinner and an early night will fix that.

Does this pattern sound familiar to you? Dave and Kylie are examples of gym goers with excessive exerciser mentality. They are overtraining or being reactive with their exercising. A lot of exercisers train like this; it’s just not always very easy to spot.

The Fitness Australia Guidelines for Identifying and Managing Members with Eating Disorders and/or Problems with Excessive Exercise defines overtraining as: ‘A condition in which the physiological demand of an exercise regime outweighs the ability of the body to adjust to the demand. Overtraining negatively affects several physiological systems, including the neuroendocrine, immunological, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems. Overtraining is characterised by poor performance in competition, frequent illness, disturbed sleep and alterations in mood.’

In my work as a health and exercise psychologist and personal trainer I have helped many clients through their problem of overtraining, educating them on what drives them to exercise excessively, on how dangerous it can be and on how they can return to healthy, sustainable training. Many people who exercise to lose weight, tone up and feel good are simply approaching it in an unhealthy manner.

The drive behind the excessive exerciser

In the case of the excessive exerciser, doing exercise is no longer just about getting fitter or healthier; it’s about the psychological fear factors driving them towards exercise. Obsessive and perfectionist factors lead them to unsafe habits. This underlying, obsessive approach to exercise (which for Kylie includes food guilt) contributes to a dangerous practice of overworking the muscles, joints and body’s internal systems.

These individuals do not give their body the recovery period it needs before overworking it again. For those training 2 to 3 times a day, most days, it simply exacerbates the physical and psychological harm. Typically, stretching isn’t a consistent part of their workouts either; adding yet further strain to the body.

For these individuals, working out becomes a dangerous ‘therapy’. Exercise gives them an activity to meet the perfectionist standards they set for themselves and an avenue to cope with the resulting excess
anxiety. Exercise is a great way of achieving goals, relieving stress and helping people feel good about themselves, but it’s not the only option and should not be used in a self-destructive manner.

For excessive exercisers, the powerful ability of personal fear factors to overwork the body is dangerous. The body does have physical limits.

In these individuals, the high mental stamina that comes from these fears far outweighs the body’s physical stamina. The body will eventually signal that it cannot continue exercising to the same intensity.

For the excessive exerciser it just feels better to do the exercise than not to. Failure to exercise causes them to feel irritated and moody, so they will soothe their nerves with a workout. If you, as a fitness professional, question them as to why they are training so often, or so hard and fast, they may well come up with a list of reasons or get cranky with you.

But something has got to give – as they keep going, it becomes harder and harder to sustain the effort involved, both psychologically and physically. Eventually, either their body limits them and/or their motivation fizzles out. They can’t do the exercise to the same extent, or at all, which increases irritability. A dangerous mindset emerges of feeling increased anxiety, a sense of failure and all the other unhealthy psychological factors that led them to push themselves too hard in the first place. They think it’s due to their lack of ability, so they put in even more effort to continue exercising, despite injury or fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle which needs to be broken.

What are the signs?

Here are some signs that the body is being over exerted, as outlined in the Fitness Australia Guidelines for Identifying and Managing Members with Eating Disorders and/or Problems with Excessive Exercise:

  • A previous injury flares up, or a new one develops.
  • A niggle in a joint or a tight feeling in a muscle develops, but is ignored while training continues.
  • Fatigue levels are higher than usual, and the exerciser feels more drained than energised. This fatigue may be physical and/or emotional, but many find it hard to differentiate.
  • Quality of sleep is not as refreshing.
  • Exerciser gets sick more frequently simply because they have run their immune system down so much that it can’t keep up with the physical demand being placed on it.
  • Exerciser may get dizzy spells, feel disorientated and faint, and have trouble concentrating.

The over-exercisers may even get these latter medical concerns checked out by their doctor, but tests can show everything to be apparently normal. Alternatively, they may fail to heed advice to reduce exercise.


Breaking the vicious cycle

Excessive exercising is becoming an increasing problem in today’s stressful and complex lifestyle, so what can you do about it? As a fitness facility owner and/or fitness professional, your priority is your duty of care to the exerciser. It can be a delicate topic to address, but when it’s approached sensitively and practically, the over-exerciser is more likely to understand your motivation for broaching the subject. If the problem is nipped in the bud then they can continue to be a member/client and not be forced to stop training due to injury or motivational burn out.

The Fitness Australia guidelines present potential scenarios and ways to approach members/clients, and also provide forms to review a client’s exercise and refer them to a doctor if deemed necessary.

Given the likelihood of the client suffering underlying anxiety, a more focused approach involves referral to a psychologist. Before it becomes a serious problem, short term psychological therapy can attend to the underlying fears and concerns driving the excessive exercise. Referring a client to a psychologist is no different from referring them to a physio for a physical concern or dietitian for a nutritional review.

In my experience and understanding of the practicalities of working out, some professionally guided re-education in understanding the source/s of their fears, and managing them safely, can do wonders for a client’s self-confidence. They can manage to alter their mentality toward exercise and learn how to continue safely while gaining more pleasure and results from a safe and effective workout. This process is enhanced if the psychologist works alongside the client’s personal trainer, resulting in a loyal and satisfied client for the personal trainer and a longer term member of your fitness facility. It’s a win-win situation.

Beneficial for all

Educating clients/members on safe exercise practice will provide you with another avenue to service your clients and members, which they will appreciate. Addressing their excessive exercise habits will spare them unnecessary physical and psychological injury. In doing so, they can continue being a client and remain a long term facility member, rather than dropping off the database. They will appreciate your professionalism and care for their wellbeing, and will seek out the added benefit of your guidance and service in the future.

Tips on how to approach the topic

  • Ask the individual why they are in the facility for the second/third time that day; this is a good way to introduce the issue.
  • Educate them on the strain that exercise puts on the body, reinforcing the fact that it can become dangerous if misused.
  • Inform them that their muscles and joints will work less efficiently if they continue to exercise excessively.
  • Highlight the benefits of regular stretching and allowing an appropriate recovery time between exercise sessions. Help them to understand that with recovery, their joints/muscles come back more refreshed and powered up for their next workout, resulting in a more efficient path to their goals.
  • Remind them that they can do other fun activities in their free time and still be confident of achieving their fitness goals, because their workouts will be more efficient and less dangerous to their body and mind.

Dr Elizabeth Celi, PhD, MAPS
As a health and exercise psychologist in Melbourne, Elizabeth specialises in maximising an individual’s wellbeing, holistically. She is a strong advocate for exercise within day-to-day wellbeing and addresses the motivational blocks people experience toward starting and maintaining a safe and effective exercise routine. She works with clients alongside their personal trainers to ensure that the physical and psychological needs of exercise are attended to. As a speaker/trainer, Elizabeth presents on this topic and the surrounding area of mental health. She has presented on these topics at FILEX and Network conventions. To contact Elizabeth e-mail
eceli@netlink.com.au


NETWORK • WINTER 2006 • PP61-66