Walking the Thin Line of Exercise Addiction

Is your relationship with exercise healthy?

Posted Jun 16, 2014

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:

  1. I have struggled with exercise addiction for 23 years. I started exercising as a way to cope with my parent’s separation in high school. Exercise provided me with such a natural high that I would spend upwards of two hours in the gym. And yes, there have been times when I’ve missed periods and dealt with bone loss because of my exercise addiction and eating disorder. This pattern continued off and on until I broke my heel for the second time in a year last fall.
  2. People often praised me for my ‘dedication’ to my diet and exercise regimen. Thus, my addiction was reinforced for over 20 years.

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 exercised to avoid feeling irritable–you didn’t want to be around me if I hadn’t gotten my morning workout in.
  • I exercised despite recurring physical problems–I broke my heel twice in a year because I wouldn’t allow myself proper rest and recovery
  • 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.
  • I was unable to reduce how long I exercised–miss my second cardio session of the day? No way! I needed it–or so, I had convinced myself.
  • I would rather have been exercising than spending time with family/friends–my ex-husband and I fought about this one all the time. So I exercised even more to cope with my own failing marriage (hey–it worked for me when my parents' marriage failed!)
  • I spent a lot of time exercising–I think just about anyone would agree that three to four hours a day is excessive.
  • I exercised longer than I planned to–just one more rep, one more lap, one more set, one more…
  • I exercised to avoid feeling anxious or tense–because I knew how bad I’d feel if I didn’t
  • I exercised when injured–the first broken heel was preceded by twisting my ankle twice in a few months.
  • I continually increased my exercise frequency to achieve the desired effects/benefits–off day? What’s that? No rest for the weary.
  • I was unable to reduce how often I exercised–of course, and I hired a trainer so I could blame him for it and rationalize it to my friends and family.
  • I thought about exercise when I should have been concentrating on work–exercise was my escape…from work, from home, from failing relationships. I looked forward to it with anticipation every day.
  • I spent most of my free time exercising–it was my favorite thing to do.
  • I chose to exercise so that I could get out of spending time with family/friends–because it kept me from thinking about my failing marriage.

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.

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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