Addicted to Exercise: More Common Than You Think
The story I have told myself is that unless I workout until fatigue, sweat out pounds of water, and feel my muscles burn, I am unworthy. This is different than being driven to workout or exercising in the pursuit of health. My self-perpetuating craving for movement often results in uncontrollably excessive physical exercise and manifests in continuous mental and physiological distress. While engaging heavily in my eating disorder, exercise was both a coping mechanism and compulsion, without which I felt I could not survive. The idea of resting provoked anxiety, coupled with feelings of guilt, irritability, depression, fatigue, and shame.
Exercise addiction is a pattern of physical activity that exceeds what fitness and medical professionals consider normal, cause immense psychological anguish, and engulfs an individual’s personal, professional, and social life (Schreiber, 2015).
It is experienced by the addict as difficult to control or reduce exercise frequency - even in the face of illness or injury. Initially, my attraction to exercise was fueled by its promise to make me feel better. However, overtime, “feeling better” became less about chasing the so-called runner’s high and more about avoiding intolerable emotions that infiltrated my awareness when I couldn’t move (ie. Anxiety).
How can exercise be addicting? Like other addictive substances, exercise has the distinct feature of temporarily flooding the brain with positive feelings, alleviating psychological distress (Schreiber, 2015). It is this feeling of euphoria and the mental and physical release it offers that renders it addictive and compulsive to some. According to a national study, exercise addiction mis thought to afflict an estimated 3% of regular gym-goers (Schreiber, 2015).
To say that I have struggled with my relationship with exercise triggers feelings of shame. For a behavior that is socially praised as the hallmark of self-discipline and wellness, I have felt weak for being so heavily impacted by it. What motivated my self-destructive level of repetitive exertion was fear and shame.
One lesson that I’ve learned through my journey of recovery is that shame thrives in secrecy. By acknowledging the shame tied to these aspects of my life, it lessens the weight they hold in my life. I remind myself that I am not alone in my struggles with exercise and body image. I hope that by sharing my struggles, I can offer insight or the vocabulary to others who are struggling and spread hope that recovery is possible. Disclaimer: my addiction to exercise was coupled with undernourishment and no rest, and the physiological effects of this differ greatly from someone who exercises, fuels themself properly, and recovers. Everything noted is in reference to my experience.
Choosing to live wholeheartedly means being openly vulnerable and comfortable with my flaws, rather than putting on a facade of strength. To me, the opposite of compulsive exercise or exercise addiction is intuitive movement. How did I address my compulsive relationship with exercise and begin healing?
1. Learn about the science behind recovery and over-training
I had to learn that the physical harm of repetitive overexertion can be lifelong and irreversible (ie. bone health, cardiovascular strength). Moreover, I learned that rest and recovery are vital in long term health and even achieving goals or progress in fitness.
2. Stop exercising altogether for months
This was a large part of my eating disorder recovery, and while in treatment, I did not engage in any sort of exercise (including walking). As part of the refeeding process, I had to abruptly face my anxiety and fears about rest and not moving my body. I believe that this experience was necessary to show me that rest does not produce the extreme detrimental effects or physiological responses as my fear was telling me.
3. Slowly reintroduce movement
I started moving again by going on walks with family. Then it was yoga. Then it was short jogs. Then it was dancing. Slowly introducing movement allowed me to reconnect with the pleasures that accompany intuitive movement. When engaged in reasonably, willfully, and spontaneously (rather than out of compulsion, as a means of self-punishment, or as an alternate method of purging), exercise lowers the risk of eating disordered behaviors (Schreiber, 2015).
4. Remove all the numbers or trackers
Knowing how many calories you burn, what your heart rate is, distance run, or time spent moving takes the intuitive part out of intuitive movement. If you know your body well, you will know when you are fatigued and need to rest, you don’t need a watch to tell you that. If you don’t know how far you’re running, it makes stopping when you’re tired easier, and makes running be for the sake of moving and not for running to reach a certain number of miles or calories burned.
5. Have a set day for rest, and be sure to honor it regularly
No eating less to compensate for the lack of movement, no subtle ways to try and burn calories - but rest. It might sound terrifying at first, but this should be the ultimate goal. If at first the idea of resting, not exercising at all or eating less to compensate seems daunting, ease into it. This might look like 30 minutes of yoga instead of your typical exercise routine. Or brisk walking instead of a long run. Slowly ease into it, and remember that the more you rest, the easier it will be each successive time.
6. When you feel an urge to exercise, check in with yourself
Ask yourself what is driving your urge to exercise. Is it fear of what will happen if you don't move? Is it compulsion or habit? Bring awareness to your decision to move (or not move) your body to break the cycle of acting habitually without conscious thought or choice. Often times, when you feel compelled to exercise, the best thing to do is wait. Wait and consider acting in the opposite way of what your mind is telling you - rest.
7. Talk about what's going on
Don't let your shame or embarrassment about your struggles prevent you from connecting with those around you. What helps me when I struggle is to talk or confide in a friend I trust. By talking through my compulsive thoughts, urges, and the long term consequences of my actions with another individual, I lessen the burden, weight and lure that often accompanies destructive behaviors. Don't let your struggle thrive in your secrecy. Call it out by name and lessen its power in your life.
Remember that you are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world struggle with moving their body and face physiological and mental anguish as a result of exercise.With the right mindset, keeping active reduces depression and anxiety, lifts negative moods, and has the potential to enhance body image and improve self esteem (Schreiber, 2015). The first step is acknowledging that there might be a problem.
Exercise should add joy and pleasure into your life - exercise should not be your life. Healing is possible.
Schreiber, K., & Hausenblas, H. A. (2015). The truth about exercise addiction: Understanding the dark side of thinspiration. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.