Cryptic PR emails are kind of my thing. Like crossword puzzles and Sudokus, they present a mental challenge that is both stimulating and 90% of the time, really entertaining once I get it all figured out. The other 10% of the time they’re either creepy or bizarre so really it’s an all-around win. (Dear people who send professional, researched PR emails, thank you. Truly. I love you more than pinhole glasses!) So the other day when I got an e-mail from a “producer from a populer show on a major network” my Spidey senses got all tingley! Misspellings are always a sign of good times.
The e-mail asked if they could call and chat with me about exercise addiction and since that is one of the main messages I’d like to get out there – both from my life and from my book – I agreed to a phone interview. It didn’t go well. True to her word, she did work for a major network and the show was “populer.” But let’s just say its popularity stems from the fact it has spawned many a reality-tv tabloid cover. I turned it down. And honestly, once she realized how earnest (and old) I am she didn’t want me anyhow. But before hanging up on one of the most surreal conversations of my career, she had one more question for me. “So, uh, where would I find other exercise addicts then? Like, at the mall?”
For the love of little green apples.
While exercise addicts have to get their shopping done like all the rest of us, how would you know they’re exercise addicts? When they sprint from sale rack to sale rack? When they bulldoze elderly mall-walkers making the rounds? When the cashier says “give me ten” and they drop and do push-ups? But she does make a good point: In a society that actively condones this disorder, how do you recognize when exercise becomes a problem? In the interest of helping people identify this disorder in themselves and in their loved ones so you/they can get help (not so a TV producer can find their freak of the week):
Charlotte’s Tips on Finding an Exercise Addict (It takes one to know one…)
1. The gym. Or gyms, plural. While an EA will find a way to workout anywhere, you will often see them at the gym for hours a day every day. In fact, their gym attendance will be remarkable only when they are not there.
2. Running in strange places
, at odd times and in bad weather. There are very few legitimate reasons for a person to risk running at midnight on icy roads. Unless you’re Rocky training for the boxing match of your life, in which case carry on you are a national treasure.
3. Exercising in socially inappropriate situations. I used to refuse to ever sit down at parties, did sit-ups and push-ups in friends’ bathrooms and other bizarre miniworkouts.
4. Talking obsessively about exercise. Usually their statements are framed in the context of “Oh I wish I hadn’t eaten that piece of cake now I’m going to have to run two extra miles tomorrow.” FaceBook, Twitter, Blogs and other social media can also be an indicator of EA if every status update is along the lines of “Ran 10 miles before breakfast! Did an awesome step workout on my lunch break – 1200 calories burned baby! Going back for power yoga tonight!”
5. Cardio classes/machines. While I’m sure that people can become addicted to weight lifting and other forms of exercise, in my experience most EAs gravitate towards cardio
because it burns the most calories in a given amount of time.
6. Always wearing a heart-rate monitor/BodyBugg/etc. Most EAs are obsessed with their numbers. I used to live and die by my heart-rate monitor. I couldn’t end my workout until I reached a certain number of calories burned and even then I couldn’t end on a “weird” number and would have to do jumping jacks to make up the difference.
There’s something that I’m sure you noticed about the above list: any one of these could describe a healthy exerciser at a point in time. Moreover, all of these could describe an athlete. So this list requires the addition of this list:
How to Know if Your Exercise is a Problem
1. It’s a matter of scale. While everyone will do one or more of the above things sometimes, if you do all of them all the time you need to examine your motivations.
2. Effect on your life. Exercise should enhance your quality of life, not hinder it. So notice if you are always putting off friends or social functions to workout or if your nightly sweat fests make you so tired you can’t focus at work the next day. Especially notice if your relationship with your significant other is suffering
3. You can’t rest. Getting put on a month of mandatory rest by my doctor – I only made it two weeks if you recall – was one of the biggest eye openers to me that my exercise had become a problem. I didn’t like taking rest days much less a rest week or two. If you are exercising through injuries, sickness, family emergencies, and chronic exhaustion then your exercise has hijacked your life.
In the end, the difference between an athlete or passionate exerciser and an exercise addict
is all about motivation. Athletes workout because they love their sport, exercise addicts workout because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t. In addition, athletes recognize that their body is their greatest tool and will work to protect it, taking rest when they need it, treating injuries and illnesses and paying attention to over training. Athletes train with a purpose or end goal while exercise addicts train for the sake of training. Can an athlete be an exercise addict? Sure. These distinctions are not meant to be a hard-and-fast rule but rather guidelines.
The last thing I would say is that if you found yourself getting really defensive reading these lists and coming up with reasons why they don’t apply to you then you really really need to sit down and think about this. If you find that you can’t think rationally about this issue then ask someone close to you to discuss these lists with you and listen carefully to what they tell you.
I realize that exercise addiction affects a relatively small percentage of exercisers – most people have the opposite problem in that they can’t motivate themselves to exercise enough – but the consequences of this can be so severe that I feel compelled to put this out there. Osteoporosis, amenorrhea, hair loss, thyroid dysfunction, heart arrhythmias and stress fractures are possible. And if those aren’t scary enough, as Cammy pointed out
in her post about her exercise addiction, recent research has shown that chronic rigorous exercise, no matter what your motivation, causes scarring of the heart muscle.
And heart scarring can lead to death.
The good news about exercise addiction is that like most things, recognizing you have a problem is half the battle and the treatment for this is very effective. I know how difficult it can be to realize that the thing you love the most may be hurting you but I also know how freeing it is to get past this. Some of you have asked me recently how I’m managing my exercise addiction and I am proud to tell you that even though the crazy voices are still there, I workout one hour a day, six days a week. That’s it! No more double workouts, no more secret workouts, no more constant numbers monitoring, very little crazy!
Any tips I missed? Have you ever had to confront a friend or loved one whom you thought was harming themselves? How do you feel about reality shows that focus on the premise of intervening or helping someone with a serious problem – useful tool or sensationalist exploitation?
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everythingfor more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!