Addicted to Exercise

Squats With Kettlebell

When your passion become a problem.

BY MONIQUE FUNK

Exercise helps to control weight, combat health conditions and diseases, improve mood, boost energy, promote better sleep, and improve your sex life … as long as it is done in moderation. But when one’s passion for fitness becomes a compulsion or an addiction, a once life enhancing pursuit can become a toxic, destructive force. This is what happened to Justin.

Justin, a moderately fit 28-year-old male, decides to get in shape for beach season. He starts going to the gym every morning before work, he gets stronger, has more energy, and begins to experience reduced anxiety.

Justin starts waking up earlier so that he can spend even more time at the gym. As his strength increases Justin decides to train for his first Ironman competition. He follows a strict workout routine and records every aspect of his workout and food intake into a logbook. After a great performance in the Ironman competition, Justin decides to keep following his training regimen, gradually increasing in intensity and duration as time progresses.

As time goes by, Justin begins to experience insomnia and an elevated morning heart rate. He continues to follow his routine, but starts to experience increasing fatigue, as well as pain in his shoulder. Justin is so busy and tired from work and working out that he has very little time or energy for his friends.

Justin’s doctor recommends that he take two to three weeks off to allow his shoulder to heal.

Justin takes a couple days off, but begins to feel irritable, depressed and guilty about missing his workouts. He decides that his doctor is over-reacting and heads to the gym, telling himself that he will take it easy.

Within a couple of days Justin is working out at full intensity. Following the “no pain, no gain” mantra, he often workouts until he feels dizzy or nauseated, taking these as signs of a particularly “good workout.” Soon Justin’s doctor tells him that he has a torn rotator cuff that will require surgery.

Justin is not alone. Approximately 3% of the general population struggles with exercise addiction.

This number is even higher in specific sub-populations, including ultra-marathon runners, sports science students, and eating disorder sufferers (40 to 50% co-occurring exercise addition).

“75% or more of my eating disorder clientele struggle with co-occurring compulsive exercise. Whether the person is an athlete or starts up an exercise program for weight-loss, the workouts become attached to an established or newly developing eating disorder,” comments Lauren Anton, MS RD, CPT, Registered Dietitian at A New Journey in Santa Monica, CA.

The progression from healthy activity, to a pathological passion can be insidious, and emerge slowly. Below are a few signs of a potential problem with exercise addiction or compulsion.

 

TELLTALE SIGNS

 

INCREASED TOLERANCE 

Increase the duration and/or intensity of exercise to get the desired “buzz” or sense of accomplishment, which over time may lead to a pursuit of increasingly extreme physical stimulation from exercise.

WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS 

Feeling anxious, irritable, restless, or unable to sleep if one doesn’t exercise at one’s expected duration, intensity level or frequency.

LOSS OF CONTROL

Unable to reduce or manage exercise duration, level or frequency despite medical advice or intentions to do so.

LOSS OF TIME 

Increasingly large amounts of time invested in thinking about, preparing for, engaging in or recovering from exercise.

INTERFERENCE WITH ACTIVITIES & RELATIONSHIPS 

As a direct result of time and energy expenditures invested in exercise, one pulls away from previously important social, professional, educational and recreational activities.

CONTINUING AT ALL COSTS 

Continuing to engage in exercise or a specific physical activity even when the activity is causing or exacerbating physical, psychological and/or interpersonal problems.

CO-OCCURRING EATING DISORDERS

Compulsive exercise is often accompanied by calorie restriction and co-occurring eating disorders.

Lauren Anton, MS RD, CPT, Registered Dietitian at A New Journey in Santa Monica, explains that, while “running, triathlons, marathons, ultra-marathons, cycling, and body building are some sports that are highly correlated with eating disorders,” any athlete or every-day exercise enthusiast can develop an unhealthy obsession with food.

These obsessions include:

  • Regimented Eating
  • Becoming very rigid about what, when, where and how
  • food is eaten.
  • Obsession with Measurements
  • Counting every calorie, gram of macronutrient, and drop of hydration.

FOOD BECOMES WORK

Seeing food as fuel to be managed and manipulated for optimal results or performance, and losing all enjoyment of food.

“While fueling for sports is important, when someone obsesses over each calorie and operates from a belief that each molecule of food ingested must be for the augmentation of heath, this can lead to a full blown eating disorder, or at least a stressed, unhappy relationship with food,” warns Anton, who says that athletes, weekend warriors and every day exercisers should be cautious of diet fads, and encourages people to ask the following question when receiving nutrition advice, “Does this person have the credentials to hand out nutrition advice?”

The people most qualified to give nutrition advice are your doctor and a registered dietitian. Be careful, warns Anton, about following nutrition advice from personal trainers, sports coaches, diet coaches, and other individuals who may not have the adequate training and education to offer such advice.

GETTING HELP

Compulsive exercise, like many other forms of addictive or disordered behavior, is
generally a symptom of a deeper issue. If you suspect that your passion for fitness has become an unhealthy obsession it is important to seek professional help.

A trained counselor can help you identify any feelings that you may be trying to avoid, and assist you in developing the coping skills necessary to work through these feelings.


In addition to seeking professional help you can also try some of the prevention tips offered by Lauren Anton of A New Journey, by scanning the QR code on this page or going to www.anewjourney.net.