8 Tips For Overcoming an Exercise Addiction [From a girl who's living it]

by Charlotte on November 12, 2012 · 33 comments

My #1 motivation for getting better and staying better: These guys.

Wanting to exercise all the time: Yeah, yeah, it’s the problem everyone wishes they had. But the compulsion that drives someone to be a gym rat is hardly enviable. First, just like eating disorders aren’t about the food, compulsive over-exercising isn’t about the fitness. People used to say to me, as I walked in the gym for my second or third workout of the day, “You’re so passionate! You must really love Turbokick/Zumba/Weight lifting/Running/Acrobatics with flaming hula hoops on a high wire!” And while I did – and do – genuinely love working out, my exercise addiction had zilch to do with love. It was 100% fear-based. I was afraid I’d get fat. I was afraid of being weak. I was afraid of being at home alone all day with my four very young children. I was afraid I’d never be good at anything again, ever (black-and-white thinking for the win!). But most of all I was afraid of being left alone with my own thoughts. What I really loved about my chronic overexercising was that all the pain and sweat made it so I didn’t have to think about what was really bothering me.

I wasn’t working out so much because I loved it. I was working out so much because I was too afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. It was this I first thought of when I read Reader S’s e-mail. At the beginning she described her history with exercise and then her current regimen, which I’ve omitted not because they’re bad or that S was wrong to include them or anything but just because she used some specific numbers and if I’ve learned one thing about ED’s it’s how much they love to compare. So I’m erring on the side of caution! She concluded with:
 “I would like to cut back but it causes me so much anxiety. But I know I need to and I want to! Can you point me to specific blog entries where you go into how exactly you conquered the addiction? Thanks for your time and your continued blogging.”
 First, thank you so much for saying thank you! You guys have no idea how much your little notes of appreciation mean to me! I love your helpful criticisms too (truly, I do) but it always makes my day to open up my e-mail and find one of these little gems. This is why I do this. (Okay that and because crowd sourcing my mental health issues is completely awesome.) Second, I realized that I don’t really have any blog posts about conquering exercise addiction. I have a few detailing specific hurdles (ha!) and how I overcame them. I have a lot of posts about how I failed at this. It just never felt like the right time before because I didn’t yet have enough distance from my ED to think around it. It was too fresh, too present. But then I realized that other than that hiccup a year ago* where I went down the rabbit hole for a month, I’ve been doing really well with my exercise compulsion for a good two years! I know! Cue confetti! I’m not perfect but I sure have come a long way. Taking rest days – even unexpected ones – doesn’t freak me out anymore. I don’t schedule every activity around my workouts. And best of all, most days I’m working out an hour a day or less, six days a week.

So for S and for any of you who are caught in the throes of this struggle, here are my best tips and I hope that you guys will add yours as well in the comments!

1. Recognize you have a legitimate problem. This is crucial because most of society won’t. For most people there is no such thing as too much exercise and they’ll see your illness as strength, desirable even. This attitude is reinforced by the media with shows about extreme weight loss, extreme exercise and extreme eating. How do you know if you have a problem? Answering these six questions is a great place to start. I’d also listen carefully to those who love and know you the best. If they think you have a problem, take them seriously.

2. Read up on the science. I don’t know if you’re like me but I always like to know the WHY of everything. So reading all the research studies that show that a) you only need 30 minutes a day to reap the health benefits, b) our bodies weren’t made to endure a lot of endurance work and doing too much cardio can actually weaken your heart and c) exercise makes you hungrier which can just perpetuate the cycle of working out to eat. (I’m not saying there aren’t real and wonderful benefits of exercise in the research but that’s not the point of this particular post. Anything taken to the extreme, even healthy behaviors, can become harmful.)

3. Look at real results. Have you gained weight dropping down to 6 days a week instead of 7 and giving yourself a rest day? I’d be surprised if you did. For me, over-exercising actually made me gain 10 pounds because I suppressed my own thyroid. (I. Am. Awesome). When I went to a more reasonable schedule, I found I lost a few pounds and that maintaining my weight wasn’t difficult. When I looked at what was actually happening to my body it didn’t match up at all with what the crazy part of my brain was telling me would happen. And in that argument reality always wins. Or at least it should!

4. Recognize what purpose exercise serves for you. For me, working out was my whole social life, my entertainment, my passion, my sense of safety and self worth and my primary way of dealing with anxiety (esp. my anxiety about gaining weight and being not-perfect). While none of these reasons are bad in moderation, taken together they made a perfect storm where I only could feel happy and calm when I was working out. When you look at it that way, of course I over-exercised! But what ED therapy helped me do was to realize that while exercise could help with those things, it couldn’t be all those things to me all the time. So I’ve had to work on making friends outside fitness pursuits, finding activities I enjoy that don’t involve exercise (seriously, my therapist assigned me to find a TV show to watch every week! I kinda love Nashville right now. You can stage the intervention for me later.), finding other topics I feel passionate about (education!) and most importantly, other techniques to manage my anxiety (meditation, calling my sister, sketching, playing the piano, hugging my kids etc).

5. Be prepared for a fight. I’m not going to lie: It’s hard. Sitting at home when I knew that one of my “usual” classes was going on would send me into a panic attack. I’d cry. Seriously. (You know you’ve got a problem when you cry over missing an aerobics class…) But anticipating it was going to be difficult, especially at first, helped me to prepare by scheduling a different activity so I wouldn’t be obsessing over what I was missing. (Taking my kids to a public place like the library works well. Usually I’m so focused on telling them not act crazy, laughing a little when they do something crazy and then getting embarrassed when other people glare at me for their craziness that I can’t think about anything else.) At the beginning my anxiety was off the charts but as I got better at doing my other calming techniques my body began to lose that fear response. The more times you do it, the easier it will get.

6. Look at the damage. This was probably the hardest part for me. Life is all about choices and choosing one thing means automatically not choosing a bunch of others. I had to sit down and recognize that I’d missed out on big chunks of my kids’ lives because I’d been out running or at a class or lifting weights in the gym. This was devastating to me when I actually sat down and assessed all the collateral damage. I’d missed friends’ kids’ baptisms. I’d missed birthday parties. I’d missed girl’s nights out. Soccer games. Kindergarten choir concerts. Date nights with my husband. I hadn’t thought of all the things - and people, sadly – that I was unchoosing every time I chose my workouts. Plus, there’s the physical damage. You don’t need me to tell you that working out too much hurts your body in so many ways. You have to find the sweet spot between too much and too little and then stick with it. (For me, my therapists put a cap on my workouts at 1 hour a day/6 days a week.)

7. Know you can do this. Believe it. If I can do this, anyone can. Not to get all Stewart Smalley up in here but you are strong enough and smart enough and worth all this effort. And know that you’ll be happier for it.

8. Get help if you need it. Ain’t no shame in getting some therapy! Some people can take themselves away from the edge. I couldn’t. I didn’t even recognize how far over the edge I even was. It took an intervention, a minor medical crisis and two rounds of out-patient ED therapy to get me through the worst of it. And I still go in for maintenance work every once in a while!

How do you guys find the balance between too much and too little exercise? Do you have any advice, encouragement or support for S? (Seriously, sometimes I like what I write in answer to a reader’s question but I always LOVE what you guys write. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences! You help more people than you know:))

*I know, I never really explained what happened there. The short version is that someone did something to me (not criminal, just not very nice) in such a way that it triggered a crap ton of PTSD memories of my sexual assault and abusive relationship. Most of it was stuff I hadn’t thought about since it happened and reliving those memories felt as horrible as it did the first time around except maybe a little worse because I didn’t have the confusion and adrenaline of being in the moment. It was a very dark time for me with a lot of sitting in a ball, shaking, crying, puking and wishing my *#$(*&^ brain wasn’t so broken. There was also a lot of brain-numbing exercise, too much probably. But the upside is that it got me back into therapy and able to talk about some stuff that I’d never said out loud to anyone before. It was huge. I recovered and regained my equilibrium (hopefully to never be shattered like that again – egads that was miserable.) Why am I telling you this now? A) because there is such a strong link between eating disorders and sexual abuse and B) because I want other girls who’ve been through something similar to know that they’re not weird for still having nightmares and that the PTSD, while horrible, can be managed. You are not weird. You are not broken. You are not damaged goods. And most of all, you are not alone.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Meghan@themeghamix November 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

Charlotte – as someone who struggled with over-exercising, I wanna thank you for sharing this. It’s true that most people will not recognize you have a problem…they’ll be “jealous” that you’re “so motivated.” I was at one time working out more than 12 hours a week – running, CrossFitting, playing racquetball, cycling…it was insane. I was short on sleep and likely on nutrients as well (not from an eating disorder but simply because I was constantly burning calories). At that point in my life I was struggling with a ton of family issues and serious anxiety disorder. Working out was fun and one of the few times I could forget about the things that were bothering me. But i started having panic attacks and/or crying if my workout plans fell through, and I actually started reading your book and realized I might have a problem.
Some things that have helped me: Scheduling more rest days – I take at least 2 per week and look forward to them as more free time in my schedule. Focusing my workouts – for a while I was trying to do practically everything under the sun. Now I stick with a few days a week of CrossFit, a little simple heavy lifting, and a racquetball date with my dad once a week. I focus more on other interests – rather than always reading health & fitness magazines and non-fiction, I get a lot more mystery reading these days.
There are lots of other ways to get help but those are a few that have made a difference for me. The kicker is my body is actually the way I WANTED it to be when I was working out like the dickens, but it only got there by working out a lot less. Life’s funny.
(PS since I know you like facts, my hubby reminds me when I’m stressed about missing a workout that stress amps your cortisol which makes subsequent workouts less effective. Nerd alerts but so motivating!)
Thank you so much as always for your honesty. You really helped me catch my issue before I endangered my health seriously, and I know you help others, too.

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Good point about the cortisol! Your hubby is a smarty. As are you! I’m so so glad that you have found your way back from the edge and are in a happy place. You are amazing and I’m so grateful you shared your story – I know many others reading this will also find it both helpful and hopeful! And this: ” I focus more on other interests – rather than always reading health & fitness magazines and non-fiction, I get a lot more mystery reading these days.” is a fab tip. Thank you thank you thank you!!

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Mary Kate November 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I know Geneen Roth is mostly about the excessive and emotional eating but I think her principles can be applied to exercise addiction as well….but maybe I think that because my ED(binge eating) was a cycle that involved excessive exercise? I would seek counseling. Sometimes it is important to admit that you can’t do it on your own(even after you admit you have a problem). Nothing wrong with having a struggle. The next time you miss a workout make yourself sit with those anxieties and write down how you feel(the irrational thoughts)and challenge them. Will you really lose the muscle? gain 5 lbs? no. Oh….Another piece of advice is to be gentle with yourself. It was a long struggle with me as well…but so worth it. I knew I was at a healthier place when I didn’t freak out about taking a trip to the Philippines where I wouldn’t be able to exercise at my usual level for 3 weeks. I went for walks with my husband’s aunts…but that was all. There was some anxiety but I acknowledged those fears and reminded myself that I would be OK…if I gained a few pounds…no…if my clothes were tight when I got home(i don’t weigh myself) it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. Upon return I would get back on my routine and be back to normal. To my surprise my clothes fit the same and I had a fabulous trip (without the worry of exercise). You can overcome this.

(and thanks Charlotte for everything:))

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Yay Mary Kate! I’m so glad that you had a wonderful trip and all your hard work paid off! Good point about using IE principles with exercise. I think you’re right. Gonna need to think more on this one! Thank you for sharing your story – I know others will find it helpful as well!

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DW November 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm

This post and comments really helped me today. I have had to take down the intensity of my workouts due to an injury and subsequent physical therapy. It was hard at first, and I’m still struggling with it. But as I’m doing lighter-impact activities and stretching way more, I’m not only finding that my injuries are healing, but that I feel better overall. I identify with what you said about the addiction being fear-based. After growing up and hearing my mom constantly put herself and every other person down who’s overweight, I’m ashamed to say that my hard, long workouts were mostly to avoid having myself be one of those people that she and others so harshly judge. Now that I’ve taken things down a bit and have seen that no, in fact, I’m not going to put on 20 pounds as a result, I’m finding genuine joy in putting on the headphones, going for a walk and being by myself for a mental break from the day. Thank you for writing about this. Nice to know I’m not alone.

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Thank YOU for this comment! ((hugs)) to you in your struggle – it’s hard in the middle but it sounds like you are making great progress! Thank you for sharing some of your story. Please keep me posted on how it goes!

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Dr. Mark November 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm

One thing that might help people like this is incorporating exercise that isn’t exactly gym exercise, like hiking or doing a stretch routine. Parhaps this will give the feeling that you’re “doing” something that isn’t exactly pushing you to the limits. Being active is great, but going overboard certainly isn’t healthy.

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Thank you for the tip Dr. Mark! I agree that doing something relaxing is important!

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irene November 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm

I don’t have much to add to the conversation other than saying 1. you don’t owe your readers or anyone else an explanation for what triggered your PTSD last year and 2. I’m glad to hear you are doing well on this front. Good luck continuing to move forward!

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Thanks Irene. You’re right about point #1. I don’t know why I feel compelled to do that. I should probably rein it in…

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Jody - Fit at 54 November 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm

You always share so much of yourself! Thank you!!!!

I am sure that many thing I have an exercise addiction BUT I am not losing ground or weight or any of the other things. I guess I know that my bod takes more of certain things if I want to eat a bit more for this 5’1″ older lady & even when I was younger.

I think it also depends on our own personal goals. 30 minutes a day would never lead towards my own personal goals. I do work out a lot yet I still make progress…..

I absolutely agree with you on the fact that many have an addictions but not all that exercise more than the norm have one OR does it effect them adversely…

Not to take away from your post at all Charlotte…. all you write about is true for many!

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:13 pm

It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, Jody! If you are happy and your mind and body are healthy then whatever you are doing is working:)

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Matt November 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

It’s almost scary how some of your posts have the perfect timing in my own life here Charlotte.

As I write this, I’ve been taking a night off because I’m feeling tired and a little like I’m catching a cold. I’ve been trying to get up the energy to head into the basement to workout but now I’m thinking I should listen to my body more.

I’ve long struggled to fight OCD exercise habits. I’m much better now. I really can take some time off without much issue, but I look back and while I never regretted exercise, I deeply regretted it taking over my life.

This is why one of my terms of endearment is that exercise should enhance one’s life. It doesn’t need to become one’s life.

Also; mad props on the notion of focusing on what exercise really does. One of the things that helped me break free was to learn the limits and scope of effect of all exercise. It helped me realize that exercise is beneficial but it does have it’s limits in what it can do.

Okay enough rambling. Thanks again for your post!

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Thank Matt – both for the compliment and for sharing your story! I think a lot of people will reading this will find it helpful as well. And thanks for pointing out the OCD connection – so true and it doesn’t get talked about enough! This: “while I never regretted exercise, I deeply regretted it taking over my life.” is so true! So glad you are figuring it out too!

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Jess November 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Great post! Having kids makes it much harder for me to go overboard, I don’t want to miss out on time with them. I only have two though, so much less crazy then 4! But I totally get how it made you feel, was a place for socializing, escaping, “being healthy” etc. Finding other interests, outlets and passions I think is key.

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:17 pm

So true! Having my kids has made me take care of myself in a way I never would otherwise. My kids only have one mom – I gotta take care of her!

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Bek @ Crave November 14, 2012 at 2:59 am

Wowza, when you said you suppressed your thyroid and gained 10 pounds I started freaking out and googling! I do a fair..okay a lot of exercise each day in between my own workouts and teaching classes. Will all this exercise suppress my thyroid even if I do eat enough to fuel my body? You’ve got me freaking out!!!! I’d love a post on thyroids, since you’re so knowledgeable and smart (yes flattery will get me everywhere haha).

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:20 pm

LOL! I’ll work on that post! From what I understand, it’s not the most common side efffect (I was just that lucky;)) But it does happen. I’ve heard from other people who have had this same issue. That said, I think as long as you are feeling good and happy then your thyroid is probably just fine. I’m not out to give anyone a complex!

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Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA November 14, 2012 at 11:11 am

I feel like I have the opposite problem, but either way, a problem is a problem. And I need a hug today. :-\

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Well, I’m a couple days late but I hope you’ll still accept my ((Hugs)) :) Love you Sylvie!

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Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA November 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

Thanks Charlotte :D ((hugs back!))

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Abby November 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I’m going to avoid a ramble here, as you know we come from EERILY similar backgrounds with this issue–minus the kids and the fact you’re recovered.

I’ll just say that right now I’m hobbling around because of an overuse injury to my foot, meaning I can’t even really do yoga for three days now (although I’ve found a way to do the stationary bike for 30 mins, so go figure.) I’m underweight, I have health issues because of my overexercising, I’m where you were in the midst of it all before you turned that (healthier) page. All of this is to say that this came at just the right time. It doesn’t make it easier for me to sit. It doesn’t make it easier for me to logically know that my actions are wrong but that I still do them every damn day. It doesn’t make it easier to sit with the anxiety and stress that the exercise helps to numb out.

But it does make it easier knowing someone like you who I trust and respect has been there and come out on top. So, ramble and hobbling aside, thank you. And this? “This is crucial because most of society won’t. For most people there is no such thing as too much exercise and they’ll see your illness as strength, desirable even.” So, so true. And so, so hard.

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:23 pm

((hugs)) Abby! You know how much I love you and how much I’m pulling for you! This: “But it does make it easier knowing someone like you who I trust and respect has been there and come out on top.” Hang on to this. You can do it. And you’re like a decade younger than me so you’re already a faster learner!!

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Charlotte November 18, 2012 at 11:25 pm

((hugs)) Meghan! I agree that this is something that we will have forever but I can tell you from experience that the voices do get much, much quieter:) You can do this! Love you!!

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Alex Laycock November 24, 2012 at 1:06 am

i echo eveyone thanks for this.
ive finally admitted my ED related exercise addiction,this is something i yearn to tackle NOW,things like your blog are in my recovery tool book now,to help me on my mission,one thing i find hard is that i am almostr a healthy weight,so relinquishing it seems unjustified,yet i knwo in my heart its my dictator,suffered for 30 years now.ALSO having to step away from friendships who also have some sort of exercise obsession,maybe not quite as ruling as mine,they have told me ots OK to be obsessive as thats whay cyclists are,for some its more deep rooted.

ONE THING,WHEN DID YOU DECIDE ON DAY ONE???i need to make the first REAL step

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Monkey November 24, 2012 at 8:43 am

I too have struggled with over exercising. Last year I was running, lifting and training BJJ with a little helping of yoga for 17 hours a week. And, yes I wasn’t eating enough, I was trying to get into a lower weight class for competition. Eventually I started crying during workouts and getting hurt. So I cut back to 10 hours a week. Long story short, after some injuries and a move across the country for a better job close to home I have cut way back on the exercise. Maybe too far back.

Anyhow, it can be extremely hard to cut back. But it is worth doing. My marriage is much happier now.

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stephanie November 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

I loved your book — LOVED. Thanks for your awesome post. You rock!

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SARAH October 29, 2013 at 11:22 am

HAS ANYONE EVER DRIVEN THEMSELF TO THE POINT OF HATING IT AND NOT HAVING MOTIVATION TO DO IT? sO EVERYDAY WAS JUST MISERABLE BECAUSE THEY FELT GUILT FOR NOT DOING IT OR FEELING LIKE IF THEY DIDN’T DO AS MUCH IT WASN’T AS GOOD RESULTS SO THEY WERE HARD ON THEMSELF? I KEEP TELLING MYSELF TO TAKE A SHORT BREAK AND THEN GO BACK WITH A HEALTHY FRESH START, BUT MENTALLY ITS HARD, THE GUILT AND PANIC THAT I WILL TOTALLY LOSE EVERYTHING I WORKED SO HARD ON. THEN HARD ON MYSELF SAYING OH JUST GO WORKOUT, BUT BEING JUST TOO DRAINED AND NO MOTIVATION?

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