When Exercise Becomes an Addiction: How Much is Too Much?

March 28 2016

One of my eating disorder’s last “strong holds” was exercise addiction.

But truthfully, I’m not sure if exercise addiction is the right word. You see, I was only “working out” 3 times a week and certainly not in a way that outsiders would see as excessive. But it was the thoughts and motivation behind exercise that called it into question.

Missing a scheduled day of exercise resulted in anxiety and guilt that spilled over to my interactions with others. But worse, I found myself disconnecting from “life” so that I could stick to my exercise regime. Deep down, I knew that exercise had become an unhealthy crutch – another rule to follow and on which to base my value as a person.

I’d traded “skinny” for “fit” – but it was just a new label for unhealthy behavior.

When exercise addiction has benefits

And to be honest – I thrived on all the positive attention. I would get an instant self-esteem boost if someone commented on my dedication to the gym or my “strong” physique. I was still using external sources to validate my worth as a person. But if I wasn’t skinny and I wasn’t fit, then who was I? I wasn’t able to tackle this question until I completely stopped exercising and actually listened to my body.

Some of you may be thinking “but I’m going to become unhealthy if I don’t exercise”. I understand this thought process. We’ve been taught to believe that formal exercise is the only way to be “healthy”.

But what does healthy really mean? Is healthy forcing yourself to hit the gym when you’re sick, tired, or injured? Is healthy scrambling out of the house and missing story time with your kids or friends because you have exactly 1 hour until the gym closes and a workout doesn’t count unless it’s a full hour?

Exercise addiction vs health

I choose to look at health in the broader sense and firmly believe that finding mental peace and health will naturally lead to physical health. Now that I no longer equate physical activity to punishment, I find happiness in long walks with my kids. I am excited to de-stress at a yoga class or try out a beginner’s Zumba class. But I’m equally happy to pour myself a glass of wine and read a book on the couch if that’s what my body wants. So how do you know that you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise?

Carefully consider your honest answers to the following questions:

  1. Do you skip out on social events if they interfere with your exercise schedule?
  2. Do you approach exercise as a means of changing your body or “undoing” a perceived wrong action (“overeating”)?
  3. Do you hold yourself or others in higher regard because of their exercise habits?
  4. Do you force yourself to work out despite injury or illness?
  5. Do you judge a workout by calories burned, miles ran, or any other “external” factor?
  6. Do you only allows yourself to eat certain foods on “workout days”?
  7. Do you have an irregular menstrual cycle, or are you missing it altogether?

If you answered more than one question with yes and feel you meet these criteria, reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in body image issues, eating disorders, behavioral addictions, or obsessive-compulsive habits.

Photo Credit: Robin Hutton

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