Exercise addiction doesn’t sound like a real thing, certainly nothing to be concerned about. After all, exercise is healthy, and if you exercise regularly? Well, you impress people. If you work out a lot, people likely say things to you like, “I wish I could work out like you!” Just scroll through your Instagram feed of hard-bodied gym bunnies boasting about juice cleanses, hardcore workout programs, and their peach bottoms and you’ll see why. It’s not only easy to get caught up in what you think is a healthy lifestyle; it’s also super simple to disguise an exercise addiction as #fitspo.
Which is probably why I didn’t think I had a problem.
But the truth is, I did have a problem. I was working out twice a day, six days a week. From logging 10 hours at my boxing gym on a weekly basis to going on long daily runs to squeezing in an hour of yoga, Pilates, or barre in the morning, I never rested. Not even on Christmas Day. After the presents were opened, I’d sneak in a quick jog or HIIT workout. Something to get my endorphins up. Anything to say (to myself), “I worked out today” even if that meant dragging my butt through a workout. Even if it meant pain and exhaustion, I was going to finish that workout.
Why? Because I’m a perfectionist, and if I’m going to do something, I’m going to go all the way. But mostly because exercise became my personal sense of gratification. Maybe I was suffering through a breakup, a job disappointment, or a conflict with friends or family, but at least I could always rely on checking off that “workout complete” box. It made me feel accomplished. Strong. Worthy. It made me feel good about myself.
Not surprisingly I first started working out as a teenager to combat body-image issues. I’d leap on my mother’s treadmill after school and run for 60 to 90 minutes a day. Exercising helped me be in control of my less-than-enough feelings.
But scrape away all the excuses and reasons and there was one simple truth: I was addicted to exercise.
Exercise addiction is broadly defined as an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise. Though not as common as some other addictions, exercise addiction affects about 3 percent of regular gym-goers and is often linked to eating and body disorders. In fact approximately 39 to 48 percent of people suffering from eating disorders also suffer from exercise addiction.
Jennifer Hicks, a Toronto-based Nia Fitness Instructor and an exercise addict, found that working out alleviated her anxiety and depression, so much so that she began to rely exclusively on exercise to help her cope.
“I would leave the house in the middle of the night to go running, cycle anywhere I needed to go, lift weights in the basement, attend fitness classes at the community center, do yoga, swimming, tennis and any kind of fitness I could,” she says. “It occupied time before work, at lunchtime, and after work. If my husband wanted to spend time with me, we had to spend it exercising. To visit with friends meant going to a fitness class, for a long walk, or finding any other way to keep moving.”
Working out excessively and changing your schedule to make it all about exercise are just two of the major signs of exercise addiction. “Exercise addiction occurs when people do it compulsively — that is, they feel driven to exercise excessively because if they don’t they become highly anxious that they’re not doing enough to lose weight, stay in shape or look good,” says Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW, psychology of eating psychotherapist, and author. “Sometimes they do it so that they won’t gain weight to compensate for chronic overeating. The key to knowing that it’s addiction is that they can’t stop or cut down the amount of exercise they’re doing without feeling that something is wrong. This is an intolerable feeling, so they exercise to eliminate the anxiety. They don’t avoid it when they’re sick or injured because they have irrational fears about what will happen if they miss a day — weight gain, loss of muscle tone or endurance, etc. More than anything, it is based on erroneous all-nothing, more-is-better thinking, and an inability to sense enoughness.”
It was health issues that caused fitness instructor Hicks to take a step back from exercise and really examine what her addiction was doing to her body.
“Along the way I developed anorexia,” she says. “For the first time in my life I was ‘thin,’ and my attitudes and beliefs about food became radically unhealthy. I developed food-related fears, began restricting food and seriously compromised my health. From osteoporosis to heart problems, a blood cell disorder, and shin splints, I was a physical and emotional mess.”
My wakeup call as an exercise addict came after I moved across country to a small town in the middle of winter and suddenly had to revamp my entire life, including my workout routine. Though I wasn’t formally diagnosed, I knew I had a problem with exercise; it was taking up so much of my time that it was preventing me from pursuing other interests and hobbies. Exercise initially was an interest, and somewhere along the way it had become my life. Away from my home gym and my regular running routes, as well as my friends and family, I finally admitted to myself that my previous exercise program had left me emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted, not to mention isolated. Exercise wasn’t going to fix me now, or help me meet new friends. It was time for me to discover who I was without extreme exercise.
My road to recovery has meant cutting my workouts in half and committing to working out smarter, not harder or longer. It also means that, especially when it comes to exercise, I listen to the kinder, more compassionate person in my head. If I don’t feel like working out, I won’t. If I can’t do that last rep, I don’t.
It’s important to note that often exercise addiction is easy to determine and isn’t thought to be as dangerous as other more common addictions like drugs, alcohol, or gambling.
“It’s easy to hide [exercise addiction] because we live in the most fat-phobic and thin-obsessed culture in the history of time,” Koenig tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Staying active is lauded, and couch potatoes are shamed. A thin, trim, toned body is the ideal for women, and a muscled, ripped one is the ideal for men. Moreover, some people with this addiction intentionally hang out with others who also have it, so that it becomes the norm.”
Some people don’t even consider that something related to exercising could be a “bad” thing. During a callout for this story, one person remarked, “Exercise addict? I wish!”
“I recall when going through my illness, several people would say ‘Ha-ha, I wish I had an exercise addiction and could eat less,’” says Hicks. “As you can imagine, this is an extremely unhelpful comment. The popular message is about doing more, not about moderation. If part of an exercise addiction/anorexia comes from perfectionism, moderation is the message that is needed.”
Hicks eventually found peace and self-compassion from a trip to India where she discovered Nia, a fitness practice that combines dance, martial arts and healing arts. She became a certified instructor.
If you believe you’re addicted to exercise, Koenig recommends attending cognitive-behavior therapy, which helps clients acknowledge irrational thoughts, in this case about exercise and thinness, and reframe them into rational ones.
“They also need to identify people in their lives who encourage and discourage the addiction and may need to end relationships that fall into the encourage category,” she says. “They need to give up all-nothing thinking, learn to sense sufficiency in their mind/body, and aim for a healthy weight that they can maintain without overexercising.”
Washboard abs won’t make you a happier or more successful person. It took me a long time to finally understand that.
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