Laura checks her watch and keeps going, sprinting up the hill in spite of her burning lungs and the fact that her legs feel like jelly. She must beat her time from yesterday or she’ll have to start over. When she makes it to the top she pauses, not to look at the view but to check her watch again. She just beat her time, but only just. Tomorrow she’ll have to run a bit harder or perhaps do her p90x workout.
She takes off again, suddenly remembering that her daughter had wanted her to stay home and have a tea party. Well, she thought as she sprinted down the road, I’ll make it up to her another time.
Reading a story like Laura’s you may think there’s no problem, right? She deserves some time to herself to stay in shape. We should all be so committed. What’s not immediately obvious is that Laura does this every single day, whether it’s 90 degrees or –10 out. She runs for hours, 7 days a week, and never skips an afternoon in order to spend time with her daughter. She’ll run even if she’s injured, if there’s loads of housework to be done, and even if her daughter begs her not to. Laura has an addiction to exercise.
It’s not a very common problem. There aren’t any current statistics on how many people this affects worldwide, and it’s frequently lumped under the same category as “eating disorders”. Quite a few anorexics or bulimics become addicted to exercise as a means to lose weight. But many doctors stress there are plenty of exercise addicts out there that don’t have a distorted body image or eating condition. They’re addicted to exercise just for the sake of exercise.
It may be hard to diagnose, and someone who is addicted will almost never be the one to admit they have a problem. More often it’s the friends and family of the addict who step forward with their concerns.
So what defines exercise addiction in the first place? Usually it’s when a person exercises over 90 minutes per day, 7 days a week, and it starts taking over their life. You can also be on the lookout for some of these signs:
- If a person exercises in spite of injury, weather, or other factors.
- If they get irritable or depressed when they can’t exercise.
- If they turn down social events with family or friends in order to get in a workout.
- If they take multiple fitness classes and then workout again at home.
- If the person keeps wanting “more”- always keeps training harder, running more miles, or spending more time in the gym. This symptom is especially telling, since the more exercise is practiced the longer it takes to achieve a “high” or sense of well-being after the activity.
So what causes this addiction? Who is vulnerable?
Answering the question of who is vulnerable is the easiest. Most exercise addicts are women. With the continuous onslaught of images in the media of younger, prettier, and thinner, it is little wonder that so many women have body image issues. While there are no official estimates, doctors do agree that women make up the majority of exercise addicts, although they stress that can’t be trusted too much. Many experts estimate that just as many men may be afflicted with this condition and are simply staying out of the hospitals and sports therapy clinics in order to avoid admitting they have a problem.
As far as the underlying causes for this addiction, there are many to be considered. Any addiction gives people who feel they have lost control to a chance to gain it back, at least in the beginning. They feel, especially in the case of exercise addiction, that they have complete control of their life, when in actuality they don’t have any control at all.
Exercise addicts may go over the edge because it gives them a sense of superiority that’s lacking in their life. With such a great body and their obvious discipline, other people look up to them and it gives the addict a sense of power.
They also may be perfectionists. If they don’t have a perfect body or work out more than anyone else they know their sense of self worth is diminished. Nothing else is good enough.
They might have an eating disorder or distorted image of their body, and relentless exercise helps them keep their weight to the perfect level. They might be regular, normal eaters but use exercise to burn off everything they eat plus a bit more.
It might also be that the addict uses exercise as a means of escape. Their extreme, constant focus on staying in shape enables them to avoid thinking about other real-life problems they may be facing.
Whatever the underlying cause, exercise addiction is a serious problem. Addicts can gravely injure themselves by going too hard for too long, and not taking rest days to allow their muscles to recover.
If you or someone you know fits the description of an exercise addiction, you can try these tips to cut down:
- Try taking some time off. This may be very difficult at first, but if you avoid the gym for at least a week it will allow your body some time to rest. Try doing some other fun things like reading, going for slow walks outdoors, and spending time with friends.
- Work exercise slowly back into your to your routine. Set a limit for how much time you’re going to work out, or how many miles you’ll run, and stick to it. Better yet, exercise with a friend who might not be in as good a shape as you. She’ll let you know when she needs to stop!
- Work in tandem with a personal trainer. They’ll help you set limits on how much exercise your body really needs.
Remember, exercise addiction, while it may sound mild, can be serious. Getting help from your doctor, family, and friends will go a long way in ensuring you have a healthy future.