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Research-Backed Framework For Re-Examining Your Relationship With Exercise

Research-Backed Framework For Re-Examining Your Relationship With Exercise


According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 84% of eating disorder patients displayed behaviors of excessive exercise over the course of their lifetime. Lorin Taranis and Caroline Meyer are two researchers that examined the motivations behind compulsive exercise. Taranis and Meyer state that while it is well known that treating compulsive exercise is an important part of eating disorder treatment, there is a gap in academic research on what are the factors that lead to compulsive exercise. 


One theory is that perfectionism is positively correlated with over-exercise, as backed by research by Fairburn et al., Shroff et al., Brehm & Steffen, and more. However, Taranis and Meyer note that these studies have had incomparable definitions of both perfectionism and compulsive exercise. 


Taranis and Meyer define perfectionism as striving for high personal standards, and a tendency towards self-criticism. While high personal standards aren’t inherently pathological, the pathological component of perfectionism comes from self-critical aspects, which are correlated with mental illness. Therefore, the researchers hypothesize that while high personal standards can contribute to over-exercise, it is not a problem unless there is a self-critical component. 


The researchers measured personal standards using the “personal standards” section of the The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. They measured self-criticism using the self-criticism subscale of The Depressive Experiences Questionnaire. 


The researchers then conceptualized compulsive exercise in 5 different subscales. The first was avoidance and rule-driven behavior. Examples of this include exercising regardless of injury or illness, compensating with additional exercise in the event of missed exercise plans, affective withdrawal symptoms, and feelings of guilt and disappointment upon missed exercise. 


The second subscale was weight control exercise, which is defined as when a person exercises primarily for weight and shape reasons, for example, exercising relative to caloric intake. The third subscale was mood improvement - particularly when behaviors of positive reinforcement are present when exercising. The fourth scale was lack of exercise enjoyment, which is viewing exercise as an obligation rather than a source of enjoyment. The fifth is exercise rigidity, which is having a strict and/or repetitive exercise routine that is strictly adhered to. 


While the researchers state that higher scores are more likely to be indicative of pathology, it’s important to note that not all of these factors are inherently pathological as standalone categories. For example, positive reinforcement and mood improvement can be a healthy motivator to exercise. Adherence to routine can help people fit consistent and manageable exercise into their lives


This is why studies like these are important. Just because someone exercises regularly that does not mean they have an eating disorder or that their relationship with exercise is problematic or unhealthy. However, these researchers performed mathematical analyses for all these factors together to find which ones resulted in statistically significant relationships. This can lead to insight for people (regardless of whether they have an eating disorder) about where their exercise routine may be unhealthy and where it might be worth seeking help. 


The results showed that perfectionism at large was positively associated with compulsive exercise. The personal standards aspect of perfectionism was associated with avoidance and rule-driven behavior. In contrast, self-criticism was associated with avoidance and rule-driven behavior, weight control, and rigidity. The researchers state that these findings show that self-criticism plays a larger role in compulsive exercise. 


There are implications and takeaways to these findings. A recent study by Dr. Phillipa Hay showed that certain therapeutic inventions have been successful for treating compulsive exercise. One can synthesize Hay’s findings with Taranis and Meyer’s findings - if one requires professional help, it may be worth finding a therapist who specializes in compulsive exercise or over-exercise disorder. If that’s not available, the next best option is a therapist who specializes in correcting self-critical tendencies. 


Taranis and Meyer’s study is not perfect and still leaves room for nuance. For example, the women in the sample were not diagnosed with eating disorders and the researchers suggest that eating disorder-specific findings may be different.


In addition, this sample was all female undergraduate students in the UK. (Figure 1). Previous studies show the importance of incorporating other factors such as gender and race, as men and ethnic minorities with eating disorders are commonly neglected, misdiagnosed, and misunderstood. 


Other studies show that there may be relationships between socioeconomic status and eating disorders. Just as these studies make statements about these factors and eating disorders, it is possible that there is further research needed to investigate these factors and their relationship to high personal standards, self-criticism, and overexercise. 



Figure 1: Woman in Gym

White women are often the most common representation of compulsive exercise and/or eating disorders. 


Photo source: News-Medical.net

Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke

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