With my hands covered in blisters and talcum powder, achy joints despite being aged fifteen, and thought racing through my head, I sit and cry in the gym changing rooms. The world is ending. Despite exercising for two hours straight, I didn’t work hard enough. Not enough sweat, not enough calories burnt. Now, my mum is offering to pick me up from the gym so we can stop by Pizza Express on the way home, which implies walking 8.75km instead of the minimum daily goal of 10.9, and eating unknown calories. ‘I can’t, I have homework,’ I text back, despite knowing the evening will be spent doing jumping squats in my room, not preparing for an upcoming Physics test.
This was the reality of exercise addiction for me, a disorder which isn’t recognised by the DSM5 but impacts around 3% of those who exercise on a daily basis. Prior to acquiring a positive relationship with fitness, it overwhelmed my life and nearly ended it. I want to speak about this issue because while anorexia is frequently discussed on the internet and in the media, exercise addiction (which often, though not always, accompanies another eating disorder) is seldom mentioned. The obesity epidemic, and the tendency of the majority of the population to neglect exercise rather than overdo it, explains this yet countless anecdotes emphasise the relevance of excessive exercise in our society.
Honestly, I struggled with starting this blog post without tearing up. Overcoming the addiction was perhaps the hardest thing I had to do, and back then I believed it would kill me before I’d scrambled back to balance. I will attempt to keep this coherent, ensuring the post raises awareness, outlines my story, and helps anyone whose relationship with exercise is less than optimal, but I cannot promise the absence of garble due to the emotive nature of the topic involved!
So, what is exercise addiction?
Keep in mind I am not an expert, speaking from experience and research, but I do not believe exercise addiction to be synonymous with exercising above a certain number of hours. Sure, many sufferers dedicate large blocks of time to their workouts, but attitude is key when it comes to determining if one’s habits are problematic. For example, I currently go to the gym 5-6 times a week and lead an active lifestyle, yet can take ten days off for upcoming exams without second thought. I eat a lot to fuel myself, and fit exercise into my life rather than the other way round. If I really can’t be bothered to work out, I don’t. I certainly don’t cry whenever I am not ‘sufficiently sweaty’ after the gym (i.e., not enough calories burned). Professional athletes exercise much more than I do, but sport is quite literally their career – someone who enjoys art will not dedicate the same hours to paining as a professional artist because it is a hobby rather than the focal point of their existence. Some people, however, exercise less, perhaps three times a week, but force themselves through workouts they hate and prioritise them above other commitments which implies a wobbly relationship with fitness.
Primary exercise addiction occurs without an underlying cause, but as an outcome of the endorphins released throughout exercise. Just like with other addictions, it may be used as a clutch in times of hardship, to alleviate the distress caused by environmental factors or illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Here, the exercise is the central problem. However, as mentioned above, an eating disorder often underlines the excessive exercise. Anorexia sufferers may use it in accordance with restriction in pursuit of weight loss, and for those with binge eating disorder exercise can be a mechanism of ‘purging’ excess calories. Regardless of the cause and an individual’s motive to engage in harmful behaviour, the signs and symptoms may include:
- An inability to skip a workout under any circumstances. As I said, you do not have to be running marathons, but if skipping the 45 minute class you’ve planned for the evening brings you extreme distress and you pursue extreme measures to ensure it gets done (e.g., skipping class or cancelling plans with friends), a problematic mindset is apparent.
- Withdrawal symptoms. A sufferer may experience anxiety, irritability or a ‘jittery’ feeling when forced to endure extended periods of time without exercise.
- Loss of interest in and a reduction of time spent on other activities. In the depths of my disorder, I would spend countless hours not just exercising, but also getting ‘pumped’ for my workouts, planning them, watching YouTube videos, reading fitness-related magazines and articles. I gave up art, writing, seeing friends. I lost touch with nature. I stopped caring about academia and future prospects. My life was exercise, count calories, exercise, count calories…
- A compulsion to exercise regardless of injury, illness or mood. As ludicrous as this sounds, many people would rather be in pain than face whatever consequence they associate with not working out.
- Your tolerance builds up and you may feel compelled to exercise for longer periods of time, push harder, sweat more. Although, this is different to setting performance related goals. This is directly linked to the euphoric feeling associated with the end of a workout / the way in which it reduces anxiety, just like an alcoholic must drink more and more to receive the same mental effect.
Physical symptoms and side effects can arise, of course, which include decreased bone density, menstrual irregularities, low body mass/fat percentage, low energy, insomnia, achy joints and proneness to injury, a poor immune system etc. However, these may take months or years to show up and given that exercise addiction is very much mental, the absence of physical difficulties does not indicate the severity of one’s problem (in the same way as any one can suffer from a severe eating disorder regardless of their weight).
What is my story?
After I recovered from anorexia for the first time and was dismissed from my mental health care provider, I lived life as a normal, happy teenager for a few months. I restored my weight and started attending the gym 3-4 times a week: nothing excessive. However, as the fitness industry expanded throughout the internet, the idea of a six pack, a low body fat percentage, an Instagram-worthy physique compelled me. I envied the people I saw and driven by my ingrained perfectionism, allowed old habits – calorie counting, portion control, obsession with the number on the scale – to creep back, in accordance with new ones.
With hindsight, I no longer blame the big bad internet for all my problems. Some people can dismiss external pressures. I couldn’t. I needed a goal to pursue, something to distinguish myself. Essentially, I needed to justify my existence through achievement, with which a low body fat percentage and an ability to exercise for five hours became synonymous.
I added an odd workout here and there. I adjusted my food intake based on daily activity. I included forms of exercise I didn’t particularly enjoy, such as interval training and spinning, into my routine for an extra calorie burn. The habits spiralled, in particular after I partnered with an irresponsible ‘personal trainer’ who pushed me to exercise more despite an awareness of my low weight, but I reassured myself: ‘It’s fine, this isn’t dangerous. I’m healthy and fit. This isn’t a disorder. Exercise is good for you. I am an athlete.‘ Unfortunately, this trap of denial is too familiar for many people.
Of course, I was no athlete. I exercised to burn calories and lose weight. Seeing a lower number on the scale induced euphoria, and through excessive exercise I aimed for extreme weight loss and a ‘reason’ to eat. Interestingly, in the depths of my addiction, my intake wasn’t much lower than a standard, doctor-prescribed weight loss diet (as opposed to the 200 calories I consumed when I first fell ill with anorexia), but my daily activity rendered it insufficient.
I grabbed every opportunity to burn calories. A run before school in the morning, taking the longer, thirty minute route to the train station, a fitness class after a gym session. It wasn’t uncommon for me to run half upon awakening and follow it up with a two hour workout in the evening. I kept a pair of dumbbells in my room and would circuit train before bed. Sweat and exhaustion, to the point of unconsciousness, were a necessity; otherwise a workout didn’t count. Moreover, apart from doing ‘formal’ exercise, I didn’t allow myself rest and allocated time slots for sitting down while at home.
6.30-7.30: HIIT workout
7.30-7.50 Sit down
7.50-8.30 Evening walk…
Sitting for more than thirty minutes induced extreme anxiety and often I left school early, as well as taking toilet breaks to pace around the corridors. I clenched random muscles and compulsively jiggled my legs. Thoughts of calories, numbers, miles ran reigned within my mind. I started to hate exercise. An athlete may exercise for six hours a day because it is their job, their passion, their purpose. It gave me nothing apart from a body withered away from exhaustion, an empty soul and a bleak existence. Depression and the prospect of dedicating my life to the same routine overwhelmed me and I often broke down during workouts but wouldn’t stop because I had to keep up a heart rate of 185, had to burn calories. Had to ensure I weighed less after a work out than I did beforehand.
How did I break this cycle? How does one overcome exercise addiction?
Recovery is different for everyone. Many people try for years without success, others recover quicker. In most cases, quitting exercise while addressing the underlying issue is key, alongside a cognitive behavioural approach: doing the opposite of what the disorder says and sitting (quite literally) with the anxiety, avoiding compensation.
Months went by and I lost all my friends because firstly, I had no time to see them and didn’t want to face the risk of eating ‘bad’ foods, and secondly, I was too difficult to be around. Hangry taken to the next level, if you like. My mood could change within seconds. Those poor souls tried their best but our friendship group disintegrated because at a fundamental level, they didn’t understand how a human can purposely destroy themselves and voluntarily live through suffering. Whispers followed me around the school and many doubted my ability to undertake GCSEs. Moreover, our family fell apart. A dark cloud invaded our house and lingered between the few words (usually of a hurtful nature) I bothered to share with my mum and stepdad on a daily basis. My mum recalls feeling powerless: she heard me exercise in ‘secret’ each evening and leave for morning runs but at this stage, no one could save me other than myself.
The suicidal thoughts, as well as the proximity of my GCSE exams, snapped me out of the routine. Mum referred me back to my eating disorder team soon after she spotted the problem but for months I rebelled against treatment, lied to my therapist, refused to gain the weight necessary to prevent permanent health complications. When she stopped my gym membership, I ran and exercised at home instead while refusing to acknowledge the severity of my problem. I was fit and healthy, remember! Then, one day I came into the treatment centre and after another unsuccessful weigh in, the therapist prescribed bed rest. This meant no school for several weeks, no walking – essentially a house arrest accompanied by a daily intake of 4000 calories. Upon hearing this, I burst to the front door and ran to the train station with the intention of killing myself because the transition from running twenty kilometres a day to nothing, frightened me more than death.
Then, I stopped and thought: ‘Wait, Maria, you’ve officially lost it. Why are you doing this?’ My true voice – rational and thoughtful – had broken through the static of my disorder. This moment felt like an out of body experience and I realised an ideal physique and weight had vanished as concepts; I existed on autopilot, edging closer to an early grave because I’d hardwired myself to function like so. The time to reprogram myself had arrived. As with any disorder, accepting the existence of your problem is the first step to recovery. A sufferer must understand the physical and mental damage created by their lifestyle before making a tangible change.
While some people heal their exercise addiction by gradually reducing their daily activity and settling into a reasonable routine, I stopped all movement, except for a recreational walk three times a week, to give my body a chance to heal and gain weight to a healthy BMI before seeking a balanced lifestyle. In all honesty, I’d recommend this approach to anyone with an unhealthy exercise habit because by incrementally decreasing activity, you may be tempted to compensate and thus slow progress. However, a complete break forces you to face the anxiety, understand that the dreaded consequence associated with not working out doesn’t occur (or if it does, like the weight gain in my case, it is not the end of the world and is usually beneficial), and create a ‘fresh start’ once you return to fitness.
Catching exercise addiction in its early stages is optimal, which can be tricky given the elusive boundary between a healthy, optimal lifestyle and an obsession. Similarly, there is a subjective distinction between gathering motivation for a workout and feeling good afterwards, and forcing yourself through a HIIT session when you’d rather spend the evening watching a film with your family. Yet, by the time clearer symptoms like the inability to sit still appear, the issue is much harder to reverse.
Recovery, of course, is possible. Just like with any other disorder. Reaching out is crucial. Setting challenges for yourself, regardless of how big or small, is intrinsic to progress. Questioning my thinking patterns and rebelling against the disorder, rather than the people wishing to help, pulled me from rock bottom. I struggled a lot with rediscovering my love for physical activity and finding a flexible routine I enjoyed, often taking mini breaks if I noticed harmful behaviours showing their ugly heads again.
I truly believe health requires some form of movement, but excessive exercise or a warped perception of its purposes can be as harmful as sedentary living. Instead of allowing the media to delude us into what we should be doing, we must find our own balance and an activity we can love and sustain throughout our lives, pursuing this at a sensible level. If you love yoga, do yoga. If your passion is cycling, there is no need to jump abroad the Crossfit train. If you’re training for muscle gain, general health or weight loss and not the Olympic games, spending five hours in the gym is counterproductive.
At this stage in my life, I’ve been recovered for just under two years. I have goals and challenge myself at the gym, which I balance with frequent lazy days spent catching up on blogs and writing. I am immune to sources which wrongfully claim that pain and tears are an integral part of a workout. Perhaps, my ability to look forward to the gym as one of the best parts of a given day, rather than dread it, highlights the extent of my improvement from when everything was close to collapse due to a healthy habit spiralling beyond the scope of my control.
This isn’t all there is to say about exercise addiction but I cannot cover all relevant issues surrounding it in a single blog post. Hence, please let me know the topics you’d like me to discuss in the future, e.g. what should be the central purpose of exercise? How should exercise be approached after an eating disorder? How do we determine the ‘correct’ amount of exercise for ourselves?
Thank you for sticking through this quite lengthy ‘n’ personal post (I feel like ‘lengthy ‘n’ personal’ should be a new blog category, lol) and for taking the time to check out my little page in the first place. I am beyond grateful for every like, comment and view: this community is a blessing.
♡ Lots of love, Maria ♡
Some helpful links which look at the signs / outcomes of exercise addiction: