The word “addiction” gives us images of people in dark rooms, listening to bad music and sticking needles in their arms, but many addicts can be found in the gym or on the local school track, getting just as addictive a fix. In fact, the positive nature of the word “healthy” makes health and fitness addiction all the more alluring. Despite the positive media, health addicts have done as much damage to their families and lives as any other kind of addict. In this piece, we will look under the surface of health and fitness addiction and find a path to recovery.
How Can Something So Good Be Bad? In our modern Western culture, those willing to pay the price for fitness are to be applauded. There are just so many temptations to do otherwise. Exercise is mostly boring, painful and smelly, so those who endure it for about an hour, 3-5 days a week, have achieved a level of discipline most only dream of.
Health and fitness addiction is not about health or fitness…it’s about a compulsion to use healthy activities to fill a void we see in ourselves. Addicts are compelled, not disciplined. The addictive chemicals involved in exercise are much the same as those in sex and porn addiction. This may explain why many people suffer from both sexual addictions and health addictions.
Types of Health and Fitness Addiction:
These are addictions to the activities of health and fitness, as opposed to the TV, Internet and shopping addictions which could involve health themes. Health and fitness addictions are compulsions to engage in “healthy” activities, like exercise, dieting, etc. In fact, anorexia and bulimia nervosa have both been described as severe health and fitness addictions. Two key symptoms of these mental disorders are exercise and dietary control to a compulsive and excessive extreme. The specific exercise or diet plan doesn’t matter. It’s an addiction when you feel compelled to do it.
How Do I Know I’m Addicted? Addicts don’t often recognize addiction because a common symptom of addiction is denial, which is even easier to have about health. That’s why it’s easier to find out from a friend or loved one if you have a problem in this area. Here are some things to watch out for concerning fitness exercise addiction:
- Do you regularly spend more than 8 hours a week exercising and is the time you spend increasing?
- Does your exercise schedule interfere with normal family activities, home or work responsibilities?
- Do friends or family members complain about the time or money you spend on fitness?
- Have you wondered if you’re being too compulsive about your fitness program?
- Have you lied to your family, friends, or employers about the time you spend in fitness activities?
- Do you often see fitness as a way to gain acceptance or praise from others?
- Have you ever pushed so hard in your fitness program you hurt yourself?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should consider yourself at risk of addiction. If you answered yes to 3 or more, you’re probably addicted.
It can be difficult to identify when a love for exercise becomes unhealthy but generally speaking if workouts become the absolute most important thing in a person’s life over and above everything else, there may be a problem. If all other obligations such as work, family and social activities suffer and take a backseat to workouts, a once healthy commitment has become an illness. Exercise addiction is even more than spending an incredible amount of time on the treadmill.
Often people will work out twice or more daily, for hours on end. Those suffering may experience severe anxiety if something or someone gets in the way of their workout and they are likely to continue with intense sessions through illness and injury. An obsession with severe dieting often goes hand in hand with exercise addiction as well. Warning signs may include an intense obsession with calorie counting, chronic dieting including crash diets and near starvation, anxiety in social situations where food may be present and general discomfort with food.
Exercise addiction can potentially create a plethora of mental and physical health complications including anxiety, nervousness, tension, depression, head and stomach aches, injury, severe mental and physical fatigue, relationship crises, irritability, weight loss, depressed immune system, kidney damage, muscle atrophy, anemia and arthritis. Not exactly the picture of health and wellness that an intelligent, balanced fitness program is intended to offer.
How Do I Recover From Health And Fitness Addiction? This is caused by a negative self-image, like any other addiction. Instead of alcohol, you use exercise to fill a void you feel in yourself. Since the relief produced by exercise is only temporary and you become conditioned, you need regular increases in the activity to produce the same relief. Unlike alcohol, a certain amount of fitness activity is required for health, so, you can’t just quit. Instead, we have to hold ourselves to no more than an hour a day, 3-5 days a week.
Exercise addiction, like any other can be successfully treated assuming it’s acknowledged. A break from exercise along with cognitive therapy and gradual re-introduction to fitness is usually the best approach.
Spend the rest of the time you used to exercise going to AA or other addiction meetings and engaging in self-development activities. You could read, go back to school, and join a volunteer group. You could take up a hobby, like gardening or building model airplanes. To help in building yourself up, avoid negative mental inputs, like the news, drama, negative, insulting friends. Replace those with good music or reading or other activities that build you up. Push all the negative, self-defeating, limiting thoughts out of your mind with positive, uplifting, encouraging thoughts.
As with everything else in life, balance is the key to having a healthy relationship with diet and exercise. It is possible to have too much of a good thing and that includes fitness. It’s important to make exercise and a balanced, nutrient dense diet a priority in life but that needs to include balancing it out with plenty of rest, a social life, enjoyment of other activities, keeping up with responsibilities, work and even occasionally routine!