by Sarah Hughes
It’s an unwritten rule in our house that I’m not to be disturbed when I’m doing a workout. The kids know it, the husband knows it. At just about any other time I’m fair game. They disturb me while I’m working, eating, on the phone; and that’s just par for the course. But my workout time is sacred. They all know that Mum is a much nicer person if she’s had her daily dose of adrenalin.
Last weekend, when the kids’ various football commitments took over and I found myself unable to exercise on two consecutive days, my mood was thunderous. My husband carefully ventured the question… Could I, might I, did I, just possibly, have a bit of an addiction going on here?
I had to admit that although I didn’t recognise it as being an addiction, exercise has certainly become my crutch when it comes to de-stressing. I use it to dampen down feelings of anxiety, as well as a tool to help me refocus when my brain is frazzled (which it almost always is). The problem with exercise addiction though is that it’s viewed pretty positively by society isn’t it? It’s something that’s very easy to feel smug and superior about, in a way we wouldn’t if the addiction was, say, alcohol or nicotine.
Social media has very cleverly sold us the over-training dream, with its ‘Strong is the new sexy’ memes popping up in our feeds on the daily. But the insta-inspired fitness stars are messing with our minds in just the same ways the super-skinny supermodels of the 90’s did. Whereas back then, anorexia was the worrying by-product, it’s now exercise addiction which is slowly on the rise, with a side serving of orthorexia (an unhealthy focus on heating in a healthy way) for good measure.
While exercise and activity trends during the pandemic were largely positive, researchers who undertook a large international study on exercise addiction found that the lockdowns exposed more people to the dangers of obsessive exercising. With little physical interaction with others, a focus on working out as a way to maintain routine became a common occurrence. 15% of their respondents were identified as being at risk of addiction.
With a huge focus on our health and weight during Covid, many people rightly decided to prioritise their health and become more active. Sales of Pelotons and other at-home fitness equipment soared and subscribers to online exercise programs rocketed. All well and good; perhaps the wake-up call lots of people needed. But what are the risks associated with over-training, and why are those beautiful rest days so important?
The charity Mind, states that whilst for most people, regular exercise is a wholly positive part of their routine, for a small amount of people it can become detrimental rather than beneficial to mental and physical health. According to their physical activity toolkit resource, the risks can include:
Injury and long-term physical damage to bones, joints, ligaments etc
Reduced muscle mass
Feeling unwell, run down and picking up colds regularly
Impact on relationships and social life
Feeling anxious, agitated and irritated
All of that sounds the polar opposite to those ‘Strong is the new sexy’ Instagram posts. So how can we strike the right balance? And more importantly, how do we know when our love of exercise is tipping into something closer to obsession?
From my years working in the fitness industry I’ve noticed a handful of warning signs that you might want to look out for if you think you might be addicted to exercise. It’s a checklist I went through myself last weekend when I realised how annoyed I was at having to miss another workout!
Whilst having a workout buddy can be great for motivation and accountability, take care if this becomes a competitive relationship. Comparing yourself detrimentally and trying to out-do your friend could be a sign you’re not thinking rationally when it comes to exercise.
Feeling excessive guilt if you miss a workout and then possibly punishing yourself by reducing calorie intake.
Not listening to your body and continuing to exercise when injured or ill.
Consistently prioritising exercise over family time, socialising or fun activities.
Mood swings and irritability when unable to exercise.
Sleep disruption due to the hormones produced by over-training.
Needing to do more and more exercise in order to feel the same ‘high’.
If you recognise elements of yourself in that list, don’t fear. I did too! The great news are there are lots of things you can do to break the cycle and restore a healthy relationship with working out.
My first piece of advice would undoubtedly be to ditch the smart watch! I hate those things at the best of times. Rather than checking in with how many calories you burned in a workout or after a run, instead check in with how you are feeling. Enjoy the buzz and fall back in love with exercising purely for the joy of it rather than so you can measure yourself against how you did last week, or how you compare to anyone else.
Secondly, tell your partner or a trusted friend/family member that you’re aware you’re possibly becoming too reliant on exercise. It’s always a difficult thing to do, but self-awareness and admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovering from any addiction. Ask them to be mindful of it and help you stay accountable.
Thirdly, I often advise clients who are at risk of over-exercising to find a new activity which is completely non-aesthetic-focussed and non-target driven. So something like Yoga or Tai Chi is great, or if you really feel you need the adrenalin-hit of exercise, why not try out a team sport where the focus is much more on camaraderie and the pursuit of a common goal. You can always go back to your regular exercise routine when you feel you’re being more rational about it. Taking a short break of even a week or so and doing something else can have great results.
The prevalence of exercise addiction is relatively low across the general population, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be vulnerable to episodes of it from time to time. Stress and insecurity have that funny habit of sneaking up on us don’t they? If you find that exercise is starting to have a negative impact on your life, it’s important to take action. Don’t be afraid to speak to your doctor; they may be able to refer you for some talking therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy whch has proven to be very effective in compulsive exercisers.