Too much exercise for teens is as dangerous as too little
Young people are constantly told to get off the couch and do some exercise. Headlines scream of the rise in obesity among the young. We are told that this generation of teens are lazier and more sedentary than any that came before.
However, instead of applauding the young people we see pounding the streets at 7am in their jogging gear, perhaps we need to take a closer look.
While the majority of young people who are exercising are doing so responsibly, an increasing number are taking exercise to the extreme.
Contrary to popular belief there is such a thing as too much exercise. Compulsive exercise is a disorder that is on the rise among young people. This need to over exercise is just another way to purge calories and can be as dangerous as an eating disorder.
The alarming thing is that compulsive exercise is now affecting people as young as 12 years old. This obsession with exercise is literally taking over and ruining their lives. Compulsive exercisers get to the stage where they no longer choose to exercise but feel compelled to do so and suffer terrible anxiety and guilt if they don't work out.
Consultant Psychiatrist on the Eating Disorder Programme at Saint Patrick's University Hospital, Dr Sarah Prasad, says she is seeing many young patients exercising excessively to lose weight. "Their motivation to exercise is all about the drive to lose weight and they certainly take that to extreme degrees," she says.
Dr Prasad believes that the issue is equally prevalent among young girls and boys. An obsession with exercise can take many forms and can be fuelled by a desire to lose weight or indeed the opposite - a desire to bulk up.
An increasing number of young men now suffer from muscle dysmorphia or 'bigorexia' as it's commonly known. Bigorexia, as its name suggests, is an obsession with increasing your size and bulking up.
These young men are excessively exercising, taking supplements and lifting huge weights which can cause serious health problems later.
The recommended amount of exercise for children and teens is 60 minutes of moderate exercise per day, but many young people are doing far more.
There are three main disorders associated with compulsive exercise: Anorexia athletica, exercise (non-purging) bulimia and muscle dysmorphia.
Anorexia athletica is a term used to describe individuals who find themselves compelled to exercise beyond the point of benefiting their body. They will continue to exercise regardless of pain, injury or illness.
Some are doing it to control their weight but other are using the exercise to deal with depression or feelings of low self esteem.
Non-purging bulimia is a binge and purge disorder where after binging on large amounts of food, the young person then rushes out and does lots of exercise to burn off the calories.
Just as lack of exercise causes health problems, so too does excessive amounts. Compulsive exercising can damage your tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage and joints. Young people suffering from the disorder very often don't allow minor injuries to heal properly, so they end up with long term damage.
Girls who over exercise may end up with amenorrhea (a condition where their periods stop). They also run the risk of osteoporosis and in severe cases, heart problems.
With Hollywood hunks getting bigger and more muscular, the pressure on young men to look good and develop a six-pack is increasing. Today, the numbers of young men suffering from muscle dysmorphia (bigorexia) is on the rise.
Bigorexia is like anorexia but in reverse. Whereas anorexics think they are too fat when they are actually too thin, bigorexics think they look puny when, in fact, they are muscular.
Aside from the dangers of working out too much and the pressure that puts on your body and your life, people who have bigorexia also tend to use a lot of food supplements. Taking too many of these supplements without having a balanced diet can end up causing kidney and liver failure.
The majority of young people who are addicted to excessive exercise are plagued by depression, anxiety and low self esteem. They often have a very negative self image and withdraw from friends and family to spend more time exercising.
It seems that we need to give our young people a strong and safely worded message. Yes it is important to get off the couch and exercise, but only in moderation.
Size zero or a huge six-pack should not be the end game for teenagers, being happy in their own skin should be.