The Dangers of Addiction: Compulsive Exercise

I’m sure when you read the word ‘addiction’, the first few thoughts that sprung to mind were substance-abuse, alcoholism, nicotine addiction; maybe even gambling or sex addiction. Those are well-known, much talked about addictions, but for some, something which is heavily promoted in our society can become an unhealthy addiction. That something is exercise.

“Exercise?!” you gasp, in disbelief, “surely not? How can something so “healthy” be a problem?”

If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, then you will see that women primarily, but also men too, are constantly being told that they should be exercising. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but the need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include clean eating (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.

The way I see it, there are three types of people: people who genuinely enjoy the activity of working out, people who don’t like the activity but in their opinion the results are worth it, and people who cannot stand it but feel like they have to do it because of their addiction to exercise. In my opinion, only the first of the three should be exercising for exercise specifically (like in a gym or using a workout routine). Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaway and playing videogames (but if that’s what makes you happy, but all means, go for it!). What I am suggesting though, is that people who don’t like working out as a specific activity should just trade in public transport/car rides for walking, and it becomes a leisurely activity instead of a chore. This can make a huge difference to your body and your health if you do it often enough, but isn’t as strenuous and as tedious as a dedicated workout. If you hate going to the gym, all you are doing is trading in your unhappiness with your body for your unhappiness of devoting time to the gym and your dread before each session.

The thing is, these days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary. Think swimming with your kids. Think playing football or badminton or squash or any sport that you love to do with your friends. Think walking in the countryside with your dog or your camera or your partner. Think volleyball on the beach. We don’t do fun things that involve exercise. Instead, we exercise in an attempt to alter our bodies, and that is just not healthy. Our lives and the way we spend our time should not be centred on chasing the “perfect” body. Unfortunately, society thinks that we should. I urge you to stand up to society and fight against that notion.

For those with exercise addiction though, it is another matter. You can’t just stop when you want to, or give yourself a day off (unless you already have a “scheduled” day, and then it must be that day and none other). You will miss social events if it coincides with your sessions. You will feel incredibly anxious before exercising, and after the exhilaration of finishing a workout has subsided, you will feel the dread of knowing that in less than 24 hours you will be repeating the same monotonous and exhausting work out.

As well as being mentally draining, compulsive exercise (also known an obligatory exercise or anorexia athletica) can have a negative effect on the body. Firstly, by working out intensely every day, the body is being put under a lot of strain, and is not being given any time to recover, which is needed. Those addicted to exercise will work out even if they are ill or injured, which could have serious consequences to their health, including damage to tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints. When injuries happen and are not given enough rest to heal, this can result in long-term damage. If the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs, muscle can be broken down for energy instead of building muscle. Girl and women could disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies, which can change menstrual cycles and even lead to the absence of them altogether. It can also increase the risk of premature bone loss, which is known as osteoporosis. The most serious risk is the stress that excessively exercising can place on the heart, particularly when someone is also restricting their intake, or using self-induced vomiting to control their weight. Using diet pills or supplements can also increase the risk for heart complications. In worst case scenarios, anorexia and compulsive exercise can result in death.

The reasons behind exercise addiction can be complicated. It could be that the person engaging in the behaviour is suffering from an eating disorder, which is the most obvious and probably most common reason, and is used as a form of weightloss and/or control. It could be used as a form of control by someone who does not suffer from an eating disorder. It could be a man obsessed with becoming muscular. It could be part of ortherexia (an obsession with eating “healthy” foods and leading “healthy” lifestyle). Athletes, dancers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and other people who are fixated with keeping in shape and keeping their weight down for their careers are also susceptible to being developing exercise addiction.

Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, exercise addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening obsession, and needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not just a strain on the body but a strain on the mind. It is absolutely exhausting, and can take up a huge amount of your life and most of your thoughts, and is extremely unhealthy for your physical and mental health.

People need to be made aware that something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy can turn into an unhealthy addiction, and it needs to be taken seriously when exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life. If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then you should take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you.

If you think you may be developing/have developed an addiction to exercise, seek medical help from your GP.

Signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from compulsive exercise include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Not enjoying exercise sessions, but feeling obligated to do them
  • Seeming (or being) anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • Not missing a single workout and possibly exercising twice as long if one is missed
  • Seeming (or being) constantly preoccupied with his or her (or your) weight and exercise routine
  • Not being able to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
  • A significant amount of weightloss
  • Increase in exercise after eating more
  • Not skipping a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • Skipping seeing friends, or giving up activities/hobbies to make more time for exercise
  • Basing self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • Never being satisfied with his or her (or your) own physical achievements
  • Working out alone, isolated from others, or so that other people are not aware of how much exercise is being done
  • Following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly

(sites used for reference and more information: 

http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php
http://addictions.about.com/od/lesserknownaddictions/a/exerciseadd.htm
http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_addiction )

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