Wednesday 16 October 2019

Dear Mary: I'm worried about my sister - her exercise obsession is making her ill

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Mary O’Conor

I am deeply concerned for my sister. She seems to have become obsessed with exercise of all types. She has halved her body size in the past 18 months and is quite petite now. In my view, she is overdoing it and looks tired and withdrawn, she doesn't look healthy, nor does she present as being happy.

As a family we have gone through a lot in the last six years, losing both parents after serious illnesses. My sister initially seemed to be doing OK but now looking back, I wonder did she grieve. She has resisted all suggestions that she should go to counselling. She tends to communicate with our family through text and WhatsApp. She follows other female personalities and sport types on Instagram.

More recently the tone of her messages seems to be quite negative, she's saying she's stressed at work, her builder is not doing what she wants, she's disappointed with her running results, and she's not sleeping.

I do not see her very often as we live in different areas. She lives close to my other sister and they see one another regularly but it's not a great relationship. There has always been some jealousy between them although they do have their moments where they are kind to each other.

I had it out with my sister twice. Earlier this year I wrote her a letter, reassuring her that I loved her but indicating that I thought she was overdoing it. I mentioned that anytime we are out for a meal, she takes the longest to decide as I'm sure she's counting the calories and there doesn't seem to be any joy in anything. She got very cross with me and indicated that she was happy. Again, this weekend, I re-stated my concern and she got quite cross. I felt that while she looks fit, she has aged - she is only 34 but her face is sunken and there's two rings of black around her eyes, I would say from anxiety and lack of sleep.

I asked her to go to her GP or a counsellor. I was worried for her bone density - she rested her legs across me on the couch as we watched TV and they were so light and frail. She looked like my mother before she died. I'm really worried that she's heading for a breakdown or cancer with all this stress and strain. I said I loved her and I wanted her to be happy but she doesn't look or act happy ever and that is why I raised it.

My other sister has indicated that the gym instructors have told her to slow down and to stop taking all these classes. She'll do a class or a workout twice a day and then cycle 40-60km at the weekend. She's always looking at labels on food and doing her sums. Her commitment to exercise in my view is cutting her off from healthy friendships and time with her family. She recently started seeing someone and he doesn't seem to be getting a look in. We were delighted when she started seeing him as I thought it might help her slow down and to be less obsessed with herself and her healthy pursuits.

Her home renovation is stressful but she's adding to it as exercise is getting in the way of her doing things for the house, such as meeting the builder regularly or getting the products that she needs for the house.

Her friends don't seem to be an option as they seem to be just as bad.

I'm really worried for her. She's a great person with a kind and generous heart, she has just gone astray. What can I do?

Mary replies: Most of us have the intention to exercise more but somehow never get to do it whereas your sister seems to be exercising too much. We are advised that 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week is what we should aim for in order to maintain our general health. Obviously the amount of exercise needed varies from person to person but your sister seems to be doing way beyond this.

You have tried on two separate occasions to let your sister know about your worries regarding her over-exercising and she has chosen not to agree with you. You even tried writing to her which is usually a very good way of getting one's point across because the person receiving the letter has time to digest and reflect on the contents. I am very struck by your determination to help your sister, motivated by your love for her, and well done for keeping on trying.

People will say that your sister is entitled to do whatever she wants with her body, and indeed with her life, without interference from you. However, from what you say I feel that there are too many alarm bells ringing for them to be ignored.

It is very well documented that things like disrupted sleep patterns, mood changes like depression, irritability and anxiety, loss of appetite, possible loss of periods and weakness of the immune system have all been attributed to over-training. Your sister is already showing signs of some of these and you are right to be concerned.

The organisation Bodywhys, which primarily deals with people who have eating disorders such as bulimia, also have a lot of experience in working with people who over-exercise. Their helpline is 1890 200 444 and they will talk through with you the best way to approach things with your sister. The excellent website is and I strongly urge you to contact them.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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