Shocking exactly nobody – at least nobody who reads this blog anyhow – I ‘fessed up a few months ago to being an exercise addict. Since then I continue to get at least one e-mail a week about this issue. It seems I have good company.
“I Wish I Were Addicted To Exercise!”
This is the usual response I get from people when I tell them I am a compulsive over-exerciser. The problem is that just like eating disorders aren’t about the food, over exercising isn’t really about the exercise. Nor is it really about being healthy. It’s another control mechanism, albeit one more socially acceptable than vomiting one’s birthday cake in a dubious restaurant bathroom or avoiding parties altogether for fear of the food.
What Defines an Exercise Addict?
Athletes workout 8-12 hours a day and nobody calls them exercise bulimics. Usually. So what makes an exercise addict? First, it’s not just about the time spent exercising (although that can be a good starting point.) Just like a person who fasts for religious purposes is not generally an anorexic, not all people who exercise a lot are addicts. For me, the difference is in the mindset.
1. The goals. Athletes work out to train for a sport or event. If something in their training causes injury or is not furthering their goals, they stop doing it. A compulsive exerciser will workout regardless of the consequences. They may have performance goals but sadly they usually go no further than the oblique and unattainable “to be thinner” or “to run faster” or “to build endurance” or “to lose body fat.” Injuries are something to be tolerated and worked through as taking a break feels impossible.
2. The breaks. An athlete will put 100% of their focus into training but once a goal is accomplished they can take a break. Often their breaks are built into their training schedule – a technique called periodization meant to maximize gains while sparing the body. Take Michael Phelps, for example. I just read an interview with him in Outside magazine where the interviewer chides him for gaining weight (stupid interviewer). Michael responds very sanely with something along the lines of “Whatever. I just swept the freaking Olympics. I can take a break. I start training for the 2012 Olympics in 2009 so I’m just going to enjoy myself right now.” For a compulsive exerciser, the result is the exercise – or the release of anxiety they get from the exercise – and so the score resets to zero every day. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday or what you have scheduled tomorrow, you feel compelled to workout at 100% every single day. The voices in your head just won’t shut up until you do.
3. The results. An athlete is all about the results. Did I get a better time? Win the medal? Ace my opponent? For a compulsive exerciser the results are often more in the form of overuse injuries – stress fractures and bad knees and sore elbows that are never quite allowed to heal. This can be compounded by the fact that over exercising often goes hand in hand with under eating. What over exercisers often do not realize (or choose to ignore) is that exercising too much will not get you where you want to be. After a certain point, exercise actually has the reverse effect on your body, causing you to gain weight and body fat because of the constant stress you are putting it under. Not to mention you are jeopardizing your long term health by weaking your bones, damaging your heart (it’s a muscle, after all) and even wrecking your fertility.
Readers Speak Out
I’d like to share with you two e-mails I have received from readers recently that typify exactly what I am talking about. They are quite long but they are well worth reading and I think many of you may see yourself in them. I know I did. Both of these letters I could have written myself at different points in my life. Reader K (letters have been changed to protect the alphabet) represents the extreme end of the spectrum. She writes:
You don’t know me, but I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and with good reason.
I’m a 21 year old college senior and maybe I seem successful; I’m fit and talented at my craft ( illustration, which is my major and all of my teachers told me I am among the best in my class) and highly driven in work and school (grades came out straight A’s) and I’m told often I’m attractive.
BUT I have no social life to speak of because it would interfere with my exercising (which, frankly, would consume my ENTIRE day were it not for my classes, school work and job that make me appear a semi-normal human being). Also, people think the way I eat is weird, which is true because I’ve been eating disordered for over half my life now.
This escapes most people’s attention because I eat healthy most of the time (with obsessive strictness to vitamin, protein, fiber and fat intake) and exercise (which in most people’s minds equals “healthy”, and admirable even though it is taken to extreme).
My BMI dances betweeen 16 and 15.8 depending on the day.
I have not had a period in almost a year.
I have 11% body fat and a lot of lean muscle; in short I currently have the body make-up of a 12 year old boy.
I have no hobbies anymore that do not involve fitness and nutrition.
I check mirrors when no one is looking to check my fat and flex my muscles out of the fear they will disappear should I neglect to exercise for a day (which I can’t bring myself to do).
In summary, I find your blog both comforting and inspiring because it hits home very frequently, and I have struggles that I’ve never heard anyone experience as closely as you do. You just make sense, and I find it admirable that you have a LIFE outside and away from your disorder because I can’t seem to have one.
For a while, I have been content with this obsession but I feel I need to make changes for the better and soon before something really bad happens (I’ve been lucky enough that even at my stupidest, a 40 mile bike trip on just 900 calories that day, I didn’t collapse of a heart attack) and ruins everything I’ve ever worked for that matters.
Do you have any advice in dealing with this disorder? What motivates you to embrace a healthy life when a dysfunctional life of thinness, endorphins and obsessive achievement sounds enticing? How do you do it???
I guess I’d just like some encouragement and wisdom from someone who understands because there’s no one else who really does.
Reader B, is a really good example of how compulsive exercising starts out and how insidious it can be. She writes:
Just today I read your entry about being a compulsive over-exerciser and it was (sadly) an “Aha!” moment for me. I so saw myself in your description of yourself and I finally realized (I may be the last person who knows me to do so) that yeh, I may just have a problem! What’s scary is that I was so deluded and telling myself it was healthy healthy healthy while simultaneously being somewhat secretive about it so that no one would judge me or try to stop me. And coming up with creative ways to “sneak in” working out. And happily looking at my little log of activities and calories burned for the day. And fantasizing about having the freedom to work out all day like a professional athlete. And excitedly drawing up and continuously tweaking my training schedule. And on and on…
I’m not sure how bad all of these things are by themselves. But when you are working out 1-3 hours per day and wishing it was more well – it may be time to re-assess, eh? But you know all of this.
Thanks again, a million times over – you’ve really helped me.
How I Am Doing
First, the bad news: I’m still working out 12-15 hours a week. For comparison, my therapist would like me to keep it under 10. The American Heart Association recommends 3 hours a week for basic health maintenance.
But now the good news! At least I’m down from the 25 hours a week I was working out! But wait, there’s more – I’ve also taken down the intensity level of several of my workouts. Rather than try and push it for the whole two hours I’m at the gym, I now do my scheduled workout and then use the extra time to just walk the track or stretch with a Gym Buddy or two and catch up on the status of all the celebrity wombs. And this last tidbit may fall under the umbrella of too much information but as it is a good indicator of my overall health, I feel inclined to share. My periods have finally come back and are now on a regular schedule! (Strange side note: weirdly, my cycle has synched up with Turbo Jennie and Gym Buddy Sunny. I never get to be the Alpha Female! Ah well, I’ll send them the bill for my chocolate cravings and zit cream.)
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. If you think that you suffer from compulsive over exercising, you need to seek help. I have a fabulous therapist and have found a lot of relief with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I also did a short stint on an outpatient basis through an eating disorder clinic for additional help. The other key I have discovered is accountability. The Gym Buddies all know about my predilections and are not opposed to taking me aside (as they did twice this month) to tell me “Charlotte, you are looking too skinny.” or “Charlotte, we’re done with our workout. Let’s just sit and stretch now.” In addition, I have you guys. That’s why I blog about this. You know I’m doing well with my compulsion when I can talk about it. If I am trying to hide it, then you have license to worry about me. The last piece of my recovery is Cymbalta. This combination anti-depressant and anxiolytic helps take the edge off my anxiety. I still have to deal with it by doing the work in therapy but at least the panic doesn’t overwhelm me now. I’m not perfect but I am getting better.
It is so important to realize that this is not something that is easy to change on your own. Eating disorders (and I classify exercise bulimia as one) are pernicious! Just when I think I’ve got one licked, another round of craziness steps in to take it’s place. While it’s true that I may have a more compuslive personality than most, I believe that this disorder is flourishing because society condones this particular brand on insanity. But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can absolutely get better from this. You are strong. You are smart. Most importantly, you are loved. We can do this together.