I have a confession to make: I am an exercise addict.
I work out six days a week, like clockwork. Sometimes twice a day if I’m working on a specific skill like pull ups, double jumps or handstands.
Saturday is my rest day, 52 weeks a year (there are 52 total weeks in a year). I hate Saturdays.
I work out every single day on vacation. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to be active all vacation, as was the case with my recent trip to Sunriver, Oregon, a place where pretty much all there is to do is to bike, walk, swim, play tennis, and strike up a game of bocce ball. I’ll work out in a tiny hotel room, an empty field, someone’s driveway. It doesn’t matter what the conditions, I will still work out.
I get anxious when I stay with other people or go somewhere new because I wonder how I’m going to break it to my hosts that I need to work out. As in, it’s not even an option not to.
I can’t even remember the last time I took two rest days off in a row. As a personal trainer, I tell people to listen to their bodies and that if they need to take an additional day off in order to let their muscles heal, to do so. Yet I never take my own advice.
Even on rest days, I have to do something active or I go a little crazy. My Saturdays usually consist of going for a hike, walking miles and miles around San Francisco, biking or doing something equally as active. Even if I happen to be traveling on a Saturday, I make sure to get up extra early and get moving. If I’m in an airport I’ll walk circles around the entire airport terminal while waiting for my flight, or if I’m on a road trip I’ll do push ups and squats every time I stop, etc. You get the idea.
Yes, I am addicted to exercise. And yes, exercise addiction is a real thing.
Exercise addiction: it really exists
Just like being addicted to cigarettes, or sugar, or having an addiction to eating (or not eating) certain amounts of food, addiction to exercise actually exists. A Hungarian study on exercise addiction demonstrates that:
“Exercising is considered to be both physically and psychologically beneficial to health, but exercise without limits and to damaging degrees can be harmful or become addictive.”
I’ve been dealing with my exercise addiction for four or five years now. And while it hasn’t totally gone away, it also has gotten much, much better.
There was a time when I was spending hours and hours in the gym—working as a personal trainer and working out multiple times a day in between training clients. I was fatigued, exhausted, and sore all the time.
I suffered one energy after another, and had no energy to do pretty much anything else but work out, eat and sleep. But still, the amount of exercise I was doing was never, ever enough in my mind.
It was only when I started doing HIIT and reduced my overall exercise time that I finally realized that what I’d been doing was actually hurting me, rather than helping. It was around that time that I started to finally become a little more reasonable about how much I exercised and got a little more relaxed on what I ate as well (I’d also been obsessing about calories during this time).
The result? I’m stronger, fitter, happier and healthier than I was when I was exercising like a maniac (all that exercise actually made me gain a little weight because I was so hungry all the time).
But I still can’t go a day without exercising without feeling that anxiety creep up on me again.
And I think one way or another, I’ll always be at least slightly addicted to exercise. Maybe it’s because I’m addicted to the feeling of being strong and independent and more confident. Or maybe it’s because deep down, I still worry that taking even one day off of my usual exercise routine will cause me to stop exercising completely and go back to the days where I felt self-conscious and crappy all the time.
Whatever the case, it’s something that’s pretty much always on my mind.
But isn’t exercise addiction a good thing?
If you’ve never had an addiction to exercise, you might wonder why it’s even a problem at all. In fact, you might think it is actually a desirable thing to be addicted to exercise.
But while it’s definitely a nice thing to feel motivated to exercise on a regular basis, there’s a fine line between wanting to work out because it makes you feel healthy and strong and feeling like you have to work out or you just won’t be OK.
An exercise addiction is actually classified as a behavioral addiction, “in which a person’s behavior becomes obsessive compulsive and/or causes dysfunction in a person’s life.” And not unsurprisingly, exercise addictions show a high correlation with eating disorders.
What’s more, many people addicted to exercise will constantly put exercise above family and friends, work, injuries, or other important life events. And studies show that if it’s not identified or treated, an exercise addiction may lead to a significant decline in one’s health.
Plus, exercise addiction can create total reality distortion. For example, when I think I’m not going to be able to work out due to an injury, or because I’m traveling with other people and it will annoy them, or for whatever reason, here’s what goes through my head:
- I’m going to gain 20 pounds of fat by tomorrow.
- I’m going to lose all my strength and hard work I put in over these past few years.
- I’m going to lose all my desire to exercise and go back to the way I used to be—chubby, weak, and unconfident.
And while logically I know that none of those things will actually happen, I can’t help but obsess over them. I get anxious and irritable. I don’t want to be near people and I don’t want to eat anything because obviously, every bite of food I eat will also add to my downfall (obviously, this is 100% untrue).
How to tell if you’re addicted to exercise
You probably are at least somewhat addicted to exercise if:
- You’re constantly injured and fatigued but refuse to take a day off.
- You feel like you have to exercise in order to feel normal.
- You feel like not exercising will cause your daily life to spiral out of control.
- You feel a high dependence on exercise and refuse to let up even during trauma or medical conditions.
Similarly, you may have an exercise addiction if feel any of the following withdrawal symptoms from not exercising:
- Loss of appetite
I have personally experienced almost all of these symptoms. But thankfully, because of my commitment to end my addiction to exercise, the symptoms are slowly but surely decreasing.
What to do about an exercise addiction
Unsurprisingly, dealing with an exercise addiction is an incredibly difficult undertaking since the end goal isn’t to stop exercising altogether—just to get to a healthier level of exercise.
And I don’t have it 100% figured out yet.
Though it’s taken a while, I’ve managed to finally force myself to get over that “more is better” mindset—whereas I used to feel guilty at all times of the day when I wasn’t exercising, I now try and give myself credit for putting in the hard work during my workout but also remind myself that rest is what will ultimately make my body stronger.
But everyone is going to have to deal with an exercise addiction a little differently. And you have to figure out what works best for you.
You may need to start learning to listen to your body, so that you can better recognize the signs of overtraining and know when your body needs a rest. You might be best off creating a weekly or monthly workout calendar and plan your workouts ahead of time so that you can just stick to your scheduled workouts and stop feeling like you should be working out more than you are. Or you may need to talk to your family or even a counselor about it to figure out what the deeper reasons are behind your addiction—and how to properly deal with them.
But my biggest piece of advice in keeping a healthy relationship with exercise? Strive for balance.
Balance is the key to everything.
Balance is what lets you have a kick-ass workout in the morning, then meet your friends for happy hour later in the day.
Balance is what pushes you to get in that one last rep, and then allows you to relax with a good book and some dark chocolate that evening.
Balance is what keeps you having fun in life. What keeps you feeling motivated and youthful and full of spark. In my experience, lack of balance leads to obsession. And obsessions, no matter what they are, are never healthy.
Whatever you do, try and remember your reasons for exercising in the first place. If they are anything like mine—to feel as strong and confident as possible, to live a long, healthy and active life and to not have to stress about every morsel of food I eat—building a regular exercise habit is one of the best things you’ll ever do.
But only if you don’t let it take control of your life.