Are You an Exercise Addict?

Also known as anorexia athletica, compulsive exercising, obligatory exercising and hypergymnasia, exercise addiction is a behavioral/process addiction involving both obsession and compulsion around exercise and fitness. Though there may be a sense of a chemical pleasure and high that comes from the exercise or intense physical activity, such as in the case of the coveted endorphin rush that results from a long, intense aerobic workout or run, the desire for this is not what necessarily fuels the addiction. And it is possible that “addiction” is not the best term for describing the individual’s relationship to exercise. Rather than coveting the chemical high, the excessive behavior is often motivated by a deep and life-controlling fear—usually of getting fat or losing muscle or falling into less than optimum physical shape. Performance anxiety may also factor into the equation, especially for formal athletes. Low self-esteem is the common denominator. In many ways the condition is better associated with eating disorders than with addiction. What becomes addictive is the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of control and the belief that, through exercise, the individual is putting his or her personal world to rights. This feeling of power and semi-calm that is achieved through exercise becomes something he or she cannot live without, no matter what consequences may result in other areas of life. But as in the case with most eating disorders, this control is an illusion. The body the individual is working so hard to strengthen and control and maintain begins to fail from exhaustion and overtraining. The sense of control that comes from the exercise ends up controlling the individual. The gym or the sport becomes a prison from which the individual cannot escape. It is important to differentiate exercise addicts from people who are naturally very physically active or who enjoy sports. Many people exercise daily without mental illness clouding their otherwise healthy behavior. The difference, in the case of the addict, is that the exercise is neither for leisure nor health. Compulsive exercisers may believe they “enjoy” it, but what they really crave is the sense of being OK. In the mind of the addict, exercise becomes linked to morality—exercise is morally good and pure, and not exercising is wrong and even sinful. Exercise then becomes the means of daily redemption and feeling right with oneself—a sort of infliction of pain that can help to mask deep pain or anxiety in other areas of life. While many will applaud the diligence and seeming self-discipline of the exercise addict, the behavior is not as healthy as it appears. While society may never understand it, thin and fit does not always equal healthy. This is, however, the modern Holy Grail. We are compelled to congratulate the very thin and very fit and very muscular individuals among us for having achieved the deity status we could only wish for ourselves. We fail to understand that mental illness and abysmally low self-esteem can be the motivators. And it isn’t even as good for the body as it appears. The unrelenting exercise often leads to injuries and strain on bones, the heart and internal organs as compulsive exercisers rarely give their bodies the time needed to repair and restore muscles and joints. Exercise addicts are also likely to ignore the signs of illness or exhaustion, continuing to exercise even to the detriment of their own health. It commonly leads to the accelerated aging and atrophy of the bones, muscles and organs and the early onset of conditions like arthritis. Beyond the physical stress on the body, over exercising can increase mental stress, though compulsive exercisers are rarely able to understand this connection. They remember the early days of exercising and the stress-relieving endorphin high they used to get. Years later, that high may be gone, but the individual keeps chasing it. As they do, anxiety only mounts. But it’s too late to get off the treadmill and escape the futile cycle. The activity fails to provide the desired chemical rewards and the exerciser is no longer refreshed or revived, just exhausted, cranky, emotionally unstable and potentially injured. Compulsive exercising can also be damaging to relationships—the over-exerciser will prioritize getting to the gym or squeezing in an overly long workout at the expense of, say, arriving at Christmas dinner on time or spending time with friends or family after work. The workout’s slot on the calendar is etched in stone—nothing shifts it, no matter how important. Over time, the individual’s tight restrictions around exercise and food contribute to his or her isolation. Relationships and marriages can be strained because of the unrelenting nature of the exercise regimen. Friendships fizzle and the addict is left in the seemingly safe, but dangerously isolated world of exercise, compulsion and control. And much like other addictions such as alcoholism, risk and negative consequences are insufficient to stem the behavior. As in the case of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, treatment and therapy is necessary to recover from hypergymnasia. The condition is dangerous and potentially fatal. If you suspect you suffer from exercise addiction, do not delay in seeking professional help.  

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