**** Disclaimer: I am in no way saying that everyone that exercises or competes in a sport has an exercise addiction. I am just simply trying to bring awareness to the other side of exercise that many people are not aware of.
Our culture praises the individual who engages in extreme exercise in pursuit of the perfect physique.
Although exercise has many benefits for our physical and mental well-being, some people can develop excessive and obsessive exercise patterns that meet the criteria for an addiction.
According to Lichtenstein and Hinze, “Exercise addiction is characterized by increasing exercise amounts, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, and loss of control. Eventually exercise addiction can lead to physical and psychological distress and reduced health (Adolescent Addiction, 2020).
Exercising excessively is not a sign of strength and willpower, but in fact, unhealthy and detrimental, not only to those that engage in it, but to their loved ones as well.
Exercise addiction is real.
There are many different ways that exercise addiction can present itself. Take the fitness industry for example – It is not glamorous. Many individuals that compete in bodybuilding and bikini competitions go to extreme lengths to gain or lose weight.
It is far from healthy, yet our society praises it. Our society seems to see it as the mastery level of self-control. As long as you have the “perfect” body no one seems to care how you did it.
Do you know how many people sit on social media and obsess over these fitness models, willing to do anything to look like them?
I follow a few women on Instagram that share their eating disorder story, and how it was exacerbated when they entered the fitness industry. I am not saying exercise is bad; it is great for you, but the way that people sometimes use it to achieve a certain look can be quite frightening and dangerous.
Exercise addiction was a large part of my eating disorder. I struggled with it for almost a decade.
I cancelled plans.
I made up excuses.
I snuck into the basement at three in the morning to get in another workout.
It ruined my relationships, especially those with my loved ones.
I didn’t care about anyone or anything, but working out to burn more calories.
I would wake up in the morning with my legs shaking, obsessing over my next run.
I would literally jump out of bed, throw on workout clothes, and run out the door.
I could not think of anything else until I exercised.
Looking back, I feel terribly sad for my parents. I can only imagine the helplessness they must have felt trying to keep me safe.
I remember they had friends call them to say that they saw me running on the highway. Obviously, they did not want me running on busy roads, but they were helpless to stop me.
I would not listen. I would get angry and leave the house.
I did not care about the weather.
I ran in snowstorms with goggles.
I ran during heatwaves.
Prior to my eating disorder, my brother, dad and I would go surfing early in the morning. Once my eating disorder developed, I would wake up and go running.
If I had any energy after my run, then I would join them surfing, but unfortunately everything changed after my eating disorder. My mind was always preoccupied with thoughts of calories, exercise, and food even while out on the water. I know they knew this and it saddened me, but I couldn’t help it.
One time I ended up with heat stroke. My mom tried to get me to drink some gatorade, but I refused. I was terrified of the calories. She cried. I felt horrible.
When I was in treatment I would go up and down the stairs numerous times to burn calories. I would stand in my room if I had to do anything on my laptop.
One time when I was in treatment, I spent hours standing up, writing Christmas cards for family and friends. I would not sit down.
When one of the staff members confronted me as to why I was constantly standing, I became very defensive and agitated. She was challenging my eating disorder (Thank you Lori!!)
I’ll never forget the time I went to my pediatrician’s office and the nurse said to me, “Wow, I am so jealous you have an exercise addiction. I wish I had that.” I was so upset. I held my composure and then bawled my eyes out in the car with my mom. Sadly, even healthcare professionals do not have full awareness of exercise addiction.
Tackling my exercise addiction was a long and difficult process, but so worth it! I did not realize how ingrained many things I did were connected to burning calories.
Being Recovered from Exercise Addiction
I have always been a very hyperactive individual, as my friends and family know too well (lol); this is just a part of who I am and always will be.
I genuinely like being on the move and keeping active. However, the difference between now and when I struggled with exercise addiction, is that I am no longer controlled by a need to burn calories.
If I exercise it is because I want my body and mind to feel good. I am no longer seeking to punish myself.
Being recovered from exercise addiction has been the most freeing experience. I can make plans with friends and not worry about having to get home to work out again.
I can travel and enjoy myself without fearing that there may not be a sufficient place to work out.
Sometimes I go on vacation and I do exercise because I like how it makes my body feel. Other times, I skip working out and just relax. Both are healthy choices because exercise no longer controls me.
I listen to my body.
I do what feels best.
Having my baby makes going on walks a lot of fun. It is a wonderful experience. I get to spend time with my baby, my dog and my husband while enjoying some physical activity.
Prior to recovery, I could not imagine going on “just” a walk. I had to do some form of rigorous activity and then maybe I would consider a walk.
I took several years off of running. I tore my hamstring and had many other injuries. I had burnt myself out.
I had to restart my relationship with exercise.
Embarrassingly enough, I have a tattoo on my foot of a Chinese symbol that means run. I can laugh at it now, but this is how mentally sick I was. My life was defined by working out, especially running.
I recently started running again and I enjoy it. I used to love running before I got sick, but once I developed my eating disorder running took on a whole new meaning.
I’m not as fast as I was, but that is okay. I like being outside in the fresh air and listening to music.
Also, my husband loves it because it helps me get rid of my intense energy that I sometimes (frequently, lol) experience.
I hope this blog helps brings more awareness around the topic of exercise addiction, and the severity of it. Please be careful and mindful of your comments about exercise to individuals, especially if you know that they struggle with an eating disorder.