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Exercise and teen girls: How much is too much?

Exercise can be addictive, but when does that rush your teen gets from working out actually turn into a bad thing? Just as with eating disorders, exercise addiction can become an all-encompassing part of your teen daughter’s life.

Is your teen addicted to exercise?
Teen exercising

Keep reading to find out what to watch for, when to worry and how to help.

Is it really an addiction?

We know that drugs and alcohol can be addictive — so can exercise. Exercise crosses from a healthy activity to an addiction when your teen no longer exercises for enjoyment, but instead feels that she must exercise and experiences anxiety or guilt if she can’t work out. When physical activities your teen used to enjoy seem to be taking over her life, she may be dealing with an addiction. A compulsive exerciser plans her life around exercise, squeezing it in whenever possible — even right before bedtime. When someone becomes this hyper-focused on exercise, not even illness or an injury will deter her plans.

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When does it become a problem?

Jennifer Kelman, MSW, has worked in the field of eating disorders, body image, self-esteem and exercise addiction for more than 20 years. She says, “When exercise begins to take over one’s life and the teen girl begins to lose interest in other things and friendships in order to pursue exercise, the focus on the body and what it can look like — which is achieved through exercise — becomes the primary focus in the young girl’s life.”

Teen girls are vulnerable

Karen Hylen, Ph.D., primary therapist at Summit Malibu says, “Exercise addiction is a modern phenomenon, triggered in part by our individual chemistry and in part by the ridiculous standards of perfection our society places on young teenage girls.” Everywhere a teen girl looks, she is bombarded with images of thin, lanky models. This constant stream of images distorts her view of what her body should look like, possibly fueling an already existing interest in exercise. The results can have a devastating impact on a teen girl’s health, both mental and physical.

Most young girls who struggle with an exercise addiction are also dealing with other eating or body image issues, such as anorexia, bulimia or body dysmorphic disorder. “These girls focus on their bodies and exercise rather than deal with the feelings that are part of adolescence which can be overwhelming,” says Kelman. “If they are exercising all the time or thinking of it when they are not exercising, they do not need to feel their true feelings.”

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What to watch for

Here are some of the warning signs of exercise addiction, as compiled in the American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.

  • Always working out alone, isolated from others.
  • Always following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly.
  • Fixation on weight loss or calories burned.
  • Exercising when sick or injured.
  • Exercising to the point of pain and beyond.
  • Skipping work, class, or social plans for workouts.

How to help

“These girls can be helped and the goal in therapy is to reconnect them to their feelings rather than use food or exercise as a way to avoid them,” says Kelman. “As I like to say, fat is not a feeling.” Outpatient therapy options may include individual counseling or group therapy, or in more serious cases an inpatient stay may be necessary.

Learning healthy habits and changing learned behaviors can help turn exercise addiction around before too much damage is done.

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