My housemate and I got into an argument last weekend over exercise addiction. He was admiring the photo of a female bodybuilder online. He venerated her dedication to the exercise and diet regimen she must have followed to achieve the level of muscularity and leanness she had reached for her fitness competition. I commented that her body fat level was too low and that it was likely she would be missing periods and be at risk for osteoporosis due to the shutdown of her reproductive hormones. He replied that it should be her choice and maybe she didn’t want children anyway.
This opened a can of worms for me for two reasons:
So at what point does a healthy relationship with movement turn into an exercise addiction? Although clinically we know exercise addiction primarily in conjunction with feeding and eating disorders, not everyone who has an addiction to exercise meets the criteria for a feeding and eating disorder.
I certainly didn’t–not at first.
I discovered the gym my senior year in high school. An emotional eater, I had put on a good 10 to 15 pounds the previous 2 years as eating was my way of coping with the demise of my parents' marriage. Until I found an all-female workout facility. Without having to be self-conscious of my added weight around men, I was free to take all the exercise classes I wanted, lift weights, and explore everything the gym had to offer. It was my escape and I couldn’t beat the endorphin rush exercise gave me. For those two hours I spent in the gym each day, I was free. Happy.
And then the praise started coming. I lost weight, looked better, felt great. The more time I spent in the gym, the better I felt. In my teens, food was my coping mechanism; in my twenties and thirties, it was exercise.
And I met a number of criteria for exercise dependence:
I continually increased my exercise intensity to achieve the desired effects/benefits–at one point, I worked with a personal trainer and started training for bodybuilding competitions as a way to deny my exercise addiction. I convinced myself and those around me that I had to work out three to four hours a day–my trainer demanded it.
So how did I beat my exercise addiction? The second broken heel did it. Immobile for five and a half months, I couldn’t exercise. So I restricted my food intake to compensate. And I didn’t heal. My poor body couldn’t–it didn’t have enough nutrients to heal. And then a friend of mine confronted me about my eating disorder–the same friend, ironically, who started the discussion that I referred to earlier in this blog post. And I knew he was right. But it was more than an eating disorder. It was an eating disorder that had been preceded and dominated by an exercise addiction.
I knew I needed help. So between my friend and my therapists, I got through my exercise addiction. Do I still think about exercising more than I should? Yes. I imagine the thoughts will be the last to go. But I no longer exercise to avoid my emotions. I no longer put exercise before time with friends. I no longer live a life that revolves around exercise.
So what is the line thin of exercise addiction? For me, it’s all about my motives. Yes, I’ve certainly cut my exercise time way back. But now I exercise because I enjoy it and I have a cutoff time–no more than half an hour most days so I don’t fall back into my addiction. I actually take a day off at least once a week–time to rest and recharge. Am I completely recovered? No. But I am well on my way.