Exercise to Excess

Among the health-risk behaviors among college students is an addiction to exercise among women, who come to constantly crave physical activity. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (October 2, 2017) — As the media and entertainment industries relentlessly spread the “Thin Ideal,” in which plus-size or “normal” figures are cast in a negative light, increasingly more people are falling victim to unhealthy lifestyles. Some, including college students, even begin to form an addiction to exercise, constantly craving physical activity.

Melissa Ertl, a third year Ph.D. student at UAlbany, set out to examine why exercise addiction was affecting so many on campus. Along with five other graduate and Ph.D. students and Assistant Professor Jessica L. Martin of Counseling Psychology, Ertl’s aim was to determine the predictors, symptoms and effects of exercise addiction among female college students.

“It’s something that’s not studied as often as other behavioral addictions,” Ertl said, “so really there’s not a ton of research to examine what are the predictors, what potentially could be risk factors for or protective factors against developing exercise addiction. Further, there’s even less research among college students.”

Examining exercise addiction was part of a much larger study done at UAlbany on health risk behaviors among college students. After finding a diverse group of students to participate, from age to race to social class, Ertl and her team decided that exercise addiction would be the focus of their manuscript.

Melissa Ertl

Melissa Ertl, one of six students who looked at the predictors, symptoms and effects of exercise addiction among female college students. (Photo by Carlo de Jesus)

“The analyses and writing process for this paper was the most collaborative project I've worked on,” said Gabrielle Groth Hoover, the third author on the study, who is in her sixth and final year of the Counseling Psychology Ph.D. program. “We puzzled out the rather confusing results with diagrams and a long discussion all together. It was a challenge but exciting to have everyone's input and expertise utilized.”

The team discovered both that body shame is a leading cause of exercise addiction and that self-esteem is a significant factor.

“Body shame increases behaviors affiliated with exercise addiction, and a woman’s self-esteem has the potential to reinforce or impede excessive exercise behaviors,” said Kate Berghuis, M.S. ’16, a doctoral student at the University of Louisville who assisted with literature research for the paper while working on her UAlbany Master's in Mental Health Counseling.

Ertl added, “We found a negative relationship between body shame and self-esteem, so the more body shame a person had, the lower their self-esteem.”

Yet, the team was surprised to discover that, in many cases, women who were body-shamed still exhibited high levels of self-esteem.

“It's intuitive that high body shame would be connected to exercise addiction, but the high self-esteem is a bit more puzzling,” said Hoover. “We offer two possible explanations for this: It may be that the high body shame outweighs the impact of high self-esteem on unhealthy behaviors like excessive exercise, or it may be that high self-esteem encourages healthy behaviors like exercise and the high body shame increases the exercise to an unhealthy level.”

The article, titled “Running on Empty: High Self-esteem as a Risk Factor for Exercise Addiction,” was published in July. The team hopes that the information they gathered will benefit clinicians when treating exercise addiction.

Ertl explains, “We’re suggesting that all clients, regardless of levels of self-esteem, be assessed for exercise addiction because, despite high self-esteem, they may still exhibit high levels of exercise addiction.”

While their careers have continued, Ertl, Hoover and Berghuis each raved about the process that went into the study, and were grateful that UAlbany had brought them together to work on an important cause.

“I think a really unique part of conducting the study was that six of the seven co-authors are all masters level or graduate students,” said Ertl.

When asked about her favorite part of the entire process, Berghuis said, “Hands down, it was the team. The drive and ambition of the co-authors are indescribable. It was a unique experience to conduct a modified paper chase where we came together for one day to construct the paper and collaborated to have an end product. Everyone worked well with one another and brought a different strength to the table.”

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