Are you addicted to exercise?
We all know that it's important to get plenty of exercise to keep our bodies fit and healthy, but how much is too much? There's a fine line between exercising enough and finding that exercise has become an obsession. Spending all your free time working out, obsessing over your body and your weight and letting your work, social life and health fall by the wayside in favour of another hour at the gym just isn't good for you. We look at some of the danger signs that could mean exercise is starting to take over your life - and what you can do to get things back to a healthy balance!
What is addiction?
Whilst exercise is generally seen as positive behaviour, letting exercise and eating take control of your life can be dangerous. But what exactly is addiction?
"Addiction occurs when adaptive changes in the brain cause symptoms of tolerance, sensitisation, dependence and withdrawal" (Leuenberger, 2006)
Before you start wondering whether your obsession with going running before breakfast means you're suffering from an unhealthy addiction, lets get one thing straight. There are two types of addiction to exercise - positive and negative. With positive addiction, you love to exercise. You fit as much exercise as you can around other areas of your life, such as work and your social life. You can miss workouts if something else comes up and you're always in control of your exercise schedule. You'll experience an improvement in your physical and psychological wellbeing.
On the other hand, negative addiction to exercise is classed as 'a compulsive desire or need to exercise that overrides a person's considerations about their health, relationships and career.' Signs that you could be in the grip of a negative addiction to working out can vary, but for most people they include some of the same things.
Are you addicted?
If you're noticing yourself displaying any of these signs, or concerned about a friend, it's time to seek help:
- Spending large amounts of time training whilst ignoring other aspects of your life - for example, missing work to go to the gym or working out for too long on your lunchbreak and being late back to the office
- Feeling guilt and discomfort (physical and mental) if you miss a workout
- 'Punishing' yourself for missing an exercise session
- Withdrawal symptoms - You may feel anxious, exhausted and stressed if you don't work out
- Loss of control where your attempts to reduce the amount of exercise you take are unsuccessful
- Denial - You continue to exercise even if you're suffering from pyschological or physical issues, such as a sports injury
Other signs could include obsessive calorie counting/fixating on weight loss. Compulsive exercise addicts often workout alone, have a strict routine that they won't deviate from and generally avoid interaction with others whilst working out.
The risks of exercise addiction
Ok, so we know that exercise is good for our body and mind - but how much is too much and what can negative exercise addiction do to our health? Overexercising puts an incredible strain on your body and mind. This additional stress can weaken your immune system, which could make you more susceptible to illness.
There's nothing wrong with challenging yourself as you aim to meet your fitness goals, but if you're constantly pushing yourself past your limits, you may experience trouble sleeping, headaches, loss of appetite and sore muscles. Long-term this could lead to the development of anaemia, joint pain and weakened bones.
A study carried out by a researcher from Stanford University looked at the effects of physical activity on a group of Harvard Alumni. As you might expect, lower death rates were evident amongst men who took regular physical exercise. But amongst those who regularly burnt in excess of 3,000 calories, the death rates began to rise. The study also revealed that mood disturbances such as depression, anxiety and anger also increased amongst men who trained more (1).
Why are you addicted?
We still don't know exactly why some people become addicted to exercise, whilst others can keep their exercise routines perfectly balanced. Some experts believe that certain personality traits could put you at increased risk of developing an exercise addiction - traits such as narcissism, OCD and high self-imposed expectations or standards. Others believe that exercise addiction is most likely amongst those with low self-esteem. Working out can boost your confidence, as well as your body image, and can lead to a release of endorphins that can cause a psychological state known as 'runners high' where you feel relaxed and at ease. The compulsion to repeatedly reach this state could lead to an unhealthy addiction to exercise. Sports which focus on the size and shape of our bodies could put us at a higher risk of developing an addiction - sports such as ballet, figure skating, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling and body building are all linked with an increased risk.
Don't let exercise control you
Remember you should be in control of how often you exercise. So how can you break the chain of addiction or reduce your risk of becoming an exercise junkie? Talking to a therapist is a great idea - you may find you're able to get to the root of your obsession, whether you desire to control an aspect of your life or are suffering from poor body image or low self-esteem.
Working with a personal trainer can also help you to set healthy, achievable goals. They will be quick to tell you if you're training too hard and they can help boost your confidence. Having a written training plan with goals allows you to set workout hours for the week, so you'll still feel in control but you're exercising within your limits. These tips can also help:
- Take at least a couple of rest days a week, as your body needs time to recover from exercise
- Fuel your body! Working out more or training harder means your body needs more calories - from healthy food, not junk. Eating too little or not getting enough nutrients could weaken your bones
- Listen to your body. If you're in pain or tired, you should stop exercising. Continuing to push yourself when you're tired could increase your risk of injury.
Remember that although we all need exercise to stay fit and healthy (and happy!) that you shouldn't let it take over your life. In order to be as happy and healthy as possible, you need balance in your life - an active social life, busy job and time to relax with friends and family are all important. Exercise should be a small yet significant part of your life; and above all, it should be fun! If it isn't fun anymore, you're not doing it right....
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