April 20, 2024
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What Is Exercise Addiction, Really?

In the hype and chaos of graduate school most of my professors, friends, and supervisors have at some point asked the students how we manage with the stress and busy schedules. There is an array of responses, from watching television to making time to go out with friends. But almost always someone throws in the answer “exercise.”

Exercise is an important part of life. Whether it is regimented work-outs or slow walks throughout the week, our bodies need to move to stay healthy. We must stay active to protect our hearts and prevent illness and disease. But when does exercise move from being a recommended activity to an unhealthy and harmful addiction?

Anytime something moves to an obsession, it can be labeled as entering the unhealthy territory. Exercise is respected highly in our society; individuals are constantly coming up with new work-out routines, friends go to exercise classes together, and machines like ellipticals and treadmills have made their way into countless homes. People are proud when they achieve an exercise goal and feel good about taking care of their bodies.

For some, exercise is a means to lose weight. People have a set work-out in order to obtain a weight goal or to become more fit or toned. There is nothing wrong with exercise, it is a good thing. But like many other good things, when taken too far it can become negative and dangerous.

Rather than be alarmed, most individuals are in awe when they hear that a friend had a fantastic and lengthy session at the gym. Exercise is a wonderful way to take care of oneself, let go of some steam, and pump up those endorphins. People respond to gym goers with admiration, saying that they could never make it to the gym because they lack “discipline.” This word, discipline, brings to mind shaky territory. Recently, a celebrity stated that she does not have an eating disorder because she “lacks discipline.” Exercise addiction falls under the umbrella category of an eating disorder, and while not everyone who exercises excessively has an eating disorder, it is a red flag when one’s life seems to be controlled by the need for exercise.

An activity becomes addictive when it consistently consumes large amounts of time and when the person’s life feels unmanageable without the activity. The individual becomes obsessive and finds that he is missing out on other areas of life because of the need to take part in this activity.

Exercise addiction is often overlooked or hidden. The person can pass it off as the desire to be fit and healthy, and this is not deemed a negative thing. At times, the individual may recognize that his time is filled with exercise and that he is becoming obsessive about his appearance and muscles. But recognizing this does not mean that it is easy to let go of the need. An addiction is complicated and involves not only an altered brain chemistry, but serves as some sort of coping mechanism for the individual.

Oftentimes, someone may be advised to lose weight or may begin exercising as a means of letting go of stress. This becomes addictive when one accumulates an unhealthy number of hours during the week at the gym or exercising in any way. Granted, some people are training for a specific event, and not every case should be diagnosed and labeled as a red flag. Additionally, the individual may have a change in diet that also becomes obsessive.

When a man or woman cancels plans more than once because s/he feels the need to go to the gym instead, this may be an indicator that something is going on. This is not to say the person has a full-blown addiction or eating disorder, but this should trigger some sort of light bulb that the individual be may going through something difficult and exercise has become the coping mechanism.

When in the throes of my eating disorder I exercised obsessively for multiple hours each day. This was a symptom of anorexia, rather than exercise addiction per se, but it manifested as an obsessive need. Only when I stopped did I realize how much I was missing out on life, and how much danger I was bringing to my body by putting it through such strenuous amounts of physical activity.

The subject of addiction and mental illness is often taboo within our community. There is generally a basic understanding, but very often these difficulties are under the radar or ignored. Exercise addiction can be serious and at times life threatening. It is important that the individual receive some sort of therapy or counseling, process what s/he is experiencing, learn to manage the urge to exercise, and to learn to do so in a healthy manner.

As a community, we must work together to learn about and acknowledge these hardships and support one another as best we can.

By Temimah Zucker

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