It’s a strange situation in our world  that people can take something beneficial, something seen as ‘good’, then distort it and abuse it to become something detrimental.  This can be the case with exercise addiction.

We all know we should be exercising in some shape or form, in whatever capacity is available to us.   The human body works best with regular movement, sitting around for too long causes all sorts of problems, this is what the NHS says about it.

However, I keep coming across people, (and I don’t mean professional athletes) who workout too much.  A small minority of people admittedly, but growing, recent research found that Covid has made exercise addiction worse (1).  Not to mention the message that social media sends from the health and wellbeing industry, which in circumstances like this, I not proud to be part of.

This can be distressing, particularly for those living with someone like this.  In fact, the exercise fanatic may not know they have a problem, they may consider themselves healthy, better, virtuous, superior even?

So how do you know if you, or someone you love, has reached the tipping point?    Like healthy eating flipping into Orthorexia, at what point is this a problem?

Here are some clues to spot exercise addiction – 

  • When it interferes with other important activities, perhaps family life
  • If it happens at unusual times or in appropriate settings
  • Exercising despite injury, illness, or other medical complications
  • When it becomes a compulsion rather than a choice, a ‘must’ rather than a ‘should’
  • At every session its ‘push push push’, giving 100% all the time, finishing exhausted
  • When there is guilt for not exercising, and withdrawal symptoms of not working out
  • Usually this is exercise alone, not in team sports
  • It changes people, the fun and enjoyment around exercise is gone, it’s now a domination and it can ruin people’s lives, or their family’s lives.

The thing is, too much exercise is actually NOT good.  Overdoing fitness places too much stress on the body which can weaken the immune system, pressures the key joints and muscles short term short and  longer term,  risks dehydration, affects hormones and often the menstrual cycle in women, can lead to low mood irritability and anxiety.  You can read more here. 

Exercise addiction can happen with or without an accompanying drive to be thin. Perhaps it starts as a way of tackling mental health  (think how walking can clear your head), and research shows that exercise is now an evidenced-based medicine for depression.  (2)

From what I see in my female clients, working out starts off as a seemingly healthy and normal desire to get fitter and lose weight.  We are encouraged that this is the right thing to do –  by the Government, the media, our culture. Then for 1 reason or another, such as success with weight loss, getting the endorphin high, being complimented by others, time alone, getting hooked on seeing muscle tone, ………. it goes too far.

At the far end of the spectrum exercise is used by eating disorder sufferers, either to purge after binging or accelerate the impact of the extreme low weight and weight loss.  You can read more about this here 

So this is tricky.  We start a new activity perhaps because we have been prompted to, we like it and it makes us feel good, physically mentally or both, we want to do more, then more, and somewhere along the line we become dependent on it.  We can have too much of a good thing, and the sooner that action is taken to prevent this, the better.

If reading this has alerted you to a problem in yourself, or with a loved one, please seek help as soon as you can.  Start by talking to someone you trust to share your concerns and decide what to do next.  What may be needed to help could be your GP, counselling or other specialist therapy. 

Recovery from exercise addiction, like any addiction, is perfectly possible, given time and the right help.  Doing nothing is the worst option. If you are worried, please get in touch. If I can’t help you, I can signpost you to someone who can.

To remind yourself what the Government’s recommended amounts for weekly exercise are, please click here

 

 

(1) Dubey MJ, Ghosh R, Chatterjee S, Biswas P, Chatterjee S, Dubey S. COVID-19 and addiction. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2020;14(5):817-823. doi:10.1016/j.dsx.2020.06.008

(2) Netz Y. Is the Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American College of Physicians Evidence-Based?. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:257. Published 2017 May 15. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00257

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