In the pitch of pre-dawn, Rita Storm rises to a 4:30 alarm, pulls on her leotard and drives through the lonely dark to the Total Woman gym in Laguna Beach, Calif.
Six days a week, Ms. Storm sweats through aerobics and slaves over Stairmasters, fiercely pushing herself to pump harder, work longer, go faster, get stronger.
In the mirror, Ms. Storm's eyes drill holes into the unforgivable fat on her too-round hips, the unacceptable flab that puffs around her imperfect, soft belly.
At 5-foot-3, Ms. Storm is a packed 120 pounds -- "solid as a rock," mother Ruth Fisher said. "She's very cute -- just adorable."
But Ms. Storm thinks her legs could be firmer, her belly flatter, her buttocks thinner.
Ms. Storm is obsessed with obtaining body perfect.
"Exercising is my life," said Ms. Storm, who worked out so much and consumed so little calcium that her hipbone snapped last June and required major surgery.
So little research has been done on fitness junkies since they were first written about in the early 1970s that a May 1992 article in Physician and Sports Medicine concluded that "an understanding of exactly how such addictions work is still lacking . . . no standards for treatment of exercise addiction are yet available."
Exercise researcher Dr. Rod K. Dishman at the University of Georgia agreed that "this topic has not been dealt with to the extent that it should be."
"I want to stop," said Ms. Storm, 21. "But it's like the devil or something won't let me out of my regimen. I know I should cut back, but I can't."
Ms. Storm's complaint stands in stark contrast to the problem facing most of the nation: America's overwhelming refusal to exercise means the general population is growing more obese and is at greater risk of premature death each year.
Only about 10 percent of the population gets the amount of exercise considered healthy -- 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three or four times a week.
A tiny percentage of those who exercise are obsessive exercisers, fitness professionals say.
Because there are so few of them and because "there's a bias against seeing exercise as anything but healthy," the tiny population thatgoes too far has been virtually ignored, said Dr. Alayne Yates, director of the exercise treatment unit at Sierra Tucson Hospital in Arizona.
"It goes under the banner of 'How can something so good be bad?' "
For Ms. Storm and fellow exercise abusers, that means there is little literature on their condition and there are virtually no experts to turn to for help.
"The population is not being addressed," said James McGinley, exercise physiologist with the University of California-Irvine's Executive Health Program.
Because no one has studied them, no one knows how many exercise addicts there are or how to tell the difference between a dedicated athlete and an exercise abuser.
Which means no one is sure how to treat Ms. Storm, and no one knows how to tell whether fellow exercise fanatic Steve Schumacher of Yorba Linda, Calif. -- who has run every day for 13 years -- is conscientious or compulsive, dedicated or addicted.
"I feel it's my own little personal challenge to do something that the average person will never come close to doing," Mr. Schumacher said. "Then again, I may be rationalizing."
For now, lacking any guidelines on whether their behavior is dangerous, Mr. Schumacher and Ms. Storm say they will keep doing what they're doing and hope they don't injure themselves.
Experts predict addicts' treatment options won't always be so sparse: A growing interest in the topic may translate into more research and better treatment for Mr. Schumacher, Ms. Storm and other fitness fanatics. "It's a really hot issue right now" in academic and research circles, said Dick Totten, director of education for the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise.
Dr. Yates at Sierra Tucson hopes to open by October what might be the first treatment program designed for exercise addicts; if the program proves successful, others might become available here and around the country, she said.
Until then, exercisers should police themselves for signs of addiction and consult an addiction specialist or sports therapist if the urge to exercise becomes more important than job, family ** and health, Dr. Yates said.
"The whole point here is to improve the quality of life," Mr. McGinley said. "If you're going to be obsessive about this the quality of your life is not going to improve, it's going to deteriorate."
Who are exercise addicts? Research shows that bulemics often purge by overexercising; people with other compulsive food disorders are also prime candidates.
But the perfectionist young white women who make up the bul of the population with eating disorders aren't the only ones addicted to exercise: Perfectionist, goal-oriented male executives make up a big part of the population, too, said James McGinley, exercise physiologist with the University of California-Irvine's Executive Health Program.
"There are a lot of men out there that are addicted to exercise I'm concerned about the executive population. Some people become fanatical," Mr. McGinley said. "Some people are ready to quit their jobs, leave their wives and exercise 24 hours a day."
According to a May 1992 article on exercise abuse in Physicia and Sports Medicine magazine, "The most common activity in which exercise addiction manifests itself is running, followed by other aerobic activities, such as bicycling and aerobic dancing."
Limited research indicates that the addiction is not physical bu psychological; dependence on exercise usually develops in people with obsessive, ritualistic tendencies.