By Judy Torel
With so much of our society today falling into the category of physically inactive, it would appear as if an addiction to exercise would be a good thing! However, exercise addiction (like all addictions), leads to a reduction in quality of life. How can you tell if you’re just really into exercise or have slipped into the category of exercise addicted?
Definition of addiction
The classic definition of addiction has always hinged on the inclusion of an increasing tolerance to a substance and the presence of physiological withdrawal symptoms with a decrease of the substance. For instance, an individual with an addiction to alcohol will find that the amount of drinks needed to get the same level of physiological response in the body will increase during the early and middle phases of the disease. If the alcoholic stops drinking cold turkey he will experience adverse physical reactions, including tremors and nausea.
In recent years we have discovered that taking substances is not the only way to become addicted. Our brains produce certain chemicals when we perform a behavior and we can become addicted to the behaviors due to the chemical reactions they create. For instance, someone may get an extreme rush from winning at a Black Jack table and may become addicted to this experience. The gambling addiction becomes an inability to control the behavior. The inability to stop yourself is another component of the definition of an addiction. Current science has now accepted that food and food behaviors can fall under the definition of addiction.
It is hard to believe that something as positive as exercise can ever be viewed as a negative addiction, but as our culture becomes increasingly inactive, and we continue to increase the value we place on athletes and the physiques that result from working out, the more prevalent exercise addiction is becoming.
One of the telltale signs of exercise as an addiction is the admittance that exercise controls you instead of you controlling it. This may show up when you have an injury, but you continue to exercise despite the pain and the possibility of making the injury worse. It also shows up when you find that you often choose exercising in place of other social activities such as meeting friends or participating in family events. Another sign is when people in your close circle start to tell you that you are becoming obsessive about your workouts and feel as if you’re putting exercise at a higher level of importance then family and relationships.
Most individuals who fall into the category of exercise addiction also are extremely concerned about body image and may also have issues with compulsive eating or another eating disorder. Exercise allows them a sense of control when they feel out of control with their eating behaviors or dislike their body shape. The addiction happens due to the brain chemistry that results from exercise-producing feelings of self-control or doing something to improve an otherwise negative body image.
Exercise addiction appears to develop in women and men between the ages of 35 and 60 more so then any other age group.
The following list may help you to identify exercise addiction in yourself or someone you know:
• Exercise is highly structured.
• Exercise steadily increases in priority over other activities.
• There is an increase in tolerance to the same amount of exercise, which leads to a need to increase the amount.
• There is an experience of withdrawal symptoms with the cessation or reduction of exercise that includes mood disturbance and physical symptoms like muscle pain.
• The withdrawal symptoms decrease or go away when exercise is resumed.
• There is an increasing self-awareness of the compulsion to exercise.
• Rapid re-instatement of the structured exercise regime after a period of abstinence or injury that resulted in exercise cessation.
What can you do?
If you think you fall into the category of exercise addiction don’t panic. As far as addictions are concerned, there definitely is a hierarchy of less desirable to more desirable. However, all addictions lead to a decrease of quality of life due to the fact that the addiction by definition controls you and self-management is the cornerstone of what it is to be a human being.
The pursuit of a balanced life is what will help exercise move from addiction to a positive habit. The great athletes that we look up to strive to avoid mindlessly abusing themselves and instead focus on reaching their maximal physical potential while balancing family, friends, career and spirituality. You can help yourself by making a list of the top five things that you feel make life worth living. A list may look like this:
• Experiencing things that make you grow as a person or that you have never yet experienced before.
• Connecting with other people with true intimacy and compassion.
• Creating and maintaining a community of family and friends who share your dreams and goals.
• A commitment to making your immediate world a better place by finding your strengths and using them to create a better world.
• Living a balanced existence including physical, psychological and spiritual elements.
A list like the above can help you clarify your own values.
Sometimes you need to seek help because what you get from exercise is so closely linked to what you value. For instance, you may make your list and find that you highly value self-discipline and exercise is one way you practice this everyday. If you find yourself struggling with the ability to balance your exercise with other life pursuits you may want to engage the help of a personal trainer or athletic coach who can help you objectively determine if your exercise level is helping or hurting you. It may also be beneficial to contract with a psychotherapist who specializes in addictive behaviors. n
Judy Torel is a therapist/personal trainer with a Master’s degree in psychology. She is certified through the American College of Sports Medicine as a fitness trainer and works out of Planet Fitness and Deb's Sweat Shop Extension. She can be reached at JTOREL2263@yahoo.com