Could You be Addicted . . . to Exercise?

Exercise AddictionWhile many of us realise we need to either workout more or workout more effectively, there are those of us who may be exercising too much (those of us who, no matter what, hit the hotel gym regardless of the time, jet lag or how tired we may be). In fact, not only are we possibly exercising too much but our exercise may even have become a physical and mental addiction.

Before I share the signs and symptoms of exercise addition, let’s be clear:

  • Just because we’ve made exercise a priority does not mean we’re addicted.
  • Just because we look forward to the way our bodies look, feel or perform as a result of a regular exercise routine does not mean we’re addicted.
  • Just because we enjoy regular workouts does not mean we’re addicted.
  • Just because we’ve creatively managed to fit exercise into our busy lives does not mean we’re addicted.
  • Just because we pack our exercise clothes and gear, or seek out the hotel gym when we travel does not mean we’re addicted.

So how do we know when we’ve crossed the line from exercise commitment to an exercise addiction?

Here are a few behaviours associated with exercise addiction:

  • An extreme need for control, a high-achieving, perfectionist attitude and low self-esteem
  • Exercise addiction is associated with OCD, anorexia, bulimia and other psychological disorders
  • Someone addicted to exercise gains a sense of control over their mood, their body and their environment through exercise
  • Ironically, addicts lose control over their ability to balance physical activity with life’s other priorities, obligations and relationships
  • Those with an addiction to exercise have difficulties in other areas of their lives, and feel exercise is one of the most important aspects of their existence
  • Someone with an exercise addiction uses exercise to express anger, anxiety, grief, sadness and to cope with work and relationship stress (although exercise interferes with work and relationships)

How does someone addicted to exercise compare to a healthy athlete?

While athletes often suffer over-training symptoms when training for a specific sport, those addicted to exercise lose perspective of the role exercise plays in a healthful quality of life. A healthy athlete and a person addicted to exercise may train for the same amount of time but the difference is in the attitude. Someone addicted to exercise will keep exercising regardless of their body’s need to rest, while a healthy athlete will incorporate rest and recovery into their training.

For example, a healthy athlete or person with a healthy mindset towards exercise may pack their exercise clothes and gear, find the hotel gym, nearby path or possibly pack what they need to get a workout in. However, if their travel plans leave them exhausted or without the time to get a workout in because of a meeting, etc. they’ll give up a workout and try again the next day.

With someone addicted to exercise, they’ll disregard the need for sleep, miss a meeting and rearrange their day to ensure a workout gets done. If for some reason they are completely unable to exercise because of circumstances, instead of being at ease with the idea of trying again the next day, they would be struggling with the missed opportunity mentally and emotionally.

Here’s where it gets complicated:

If exercise is recommended as something that helps in overcoming emotional disorders and addictions, how can it be viewed as an addiction and disorder itself?

Here’s “exercise bulimia” in action:

How often have you seen someone displaying signs of “exercise bulimia” where they’re using exercise as the method to purge calories from excess food? Maybe while on holiday they ate dessert the night before and want to burn off the exact amount of calories they ate in the form of a sweet or treat. Maybe they had a few cocktails at the hotel bar or grabbed a few unhealthy snacks in the airport and as a result, they hit the hotel gym the minute after they checked into their room . . .

We don’t see it as a problem or question it because exercise is viewed as healthy as opposed to other methods used to purge (vomiting, laxatives, etc.). But, look closely and you’ll see that exercising to purge calories is another but more socially acceptable form of bulimia.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to see where you stand:

Are you exercising through illness, fatigue, jet lag, working out while you’re in pain, when you’re sick or against the advice of your doctor?
Are you placing exercise above all other obligations and responsibilities?
Are you experiencing irritability, anxiety and depression when you’re not exercising?

How can I change if I do have an exercise addiction?

The first step is identifying that what may have begun as a quest for health may have turned into something far different. If that’s the case, consider getting support. A coach or therapist who can work with you to change your perspective is a great place to start. Possibly a Personal Trainer you resonate with who can create a more moderate fitness plan with days off or with less intensity while you’re away, travelling on business, on holiday or simply placed carefully throughout your week would help. It may also help to identify the underlying emotions causing the addiction and finding healthy coping techniques instead.

As with any change, it’s a process and it’s important to realise that this behaviour is an attempt to gain control when we’re feeling out of control. It’s a way we’ve chosen to show ourselves some self-care. It’s a way we’ve taught ourselves to deal with our emotions and do our best to help ourselves. So from a place of love and compassion, know that you were using the tools you had available to you and a method you thought would help.

Knowing that, slowly make the changes you need to in order to start feeling healthy-mentally, emotionally and physically from the inside, out.