Exercise Addiction: When More Doesn't Always Mean Better

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It’s 10 a.m. and I’m off work in half an hour. I’ve been working the opening desk shift at my exercise studio watching people come and go from their exercise classes for a little over four hours. When I’m off work, I’ll do an inferno sculpt class at the studio. Then I’ll walk a mile to the college campus to where I have my other job, and I’ll finish classes for the day before heading home. Sounds like a normal morning, right? What’s not evident is that watching these people come and go for four hours from their workouts has been challenging for me.

The thumping music has been making me want to do squats with my own set of weights and the instructor’s motivational cries have been making me want to pump out my own set of mountain climbers. I wanted to be in there with them. Being addicted to exercise sounds like a joke… No one actually ENJOYS exercising, right?! But exercise addiction is a compulsive disorder. It’s just like any other type of addiction. 

It’s due to the feeling you get when those endorphins are released and the pain goes away. You feel STRONG. You feel POWERFUL. You feel like you’re finally in CONTROL of something, because even though nothing else in your life ever really feels completely in your full control you CAN control the movements of your own body when you’re exercising. When your need to exercise begins to control how you schedule your life and it begins to take over your decisions, there’s a problem. This addiction also pairs frequently with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The anxiety you feel is temporarily under control by the release of tension you get from exercising, and the depression you feel temporarily lets up with the pain of your screaming muscles when the dopamine is released to your brain.

Exercise addiction is a very real disorder that affects a large majority of the population. Wow Molly, you’re telling me that you can actually addicted be to exercise? How can needing to exercise possibly be BAD for you? Well, the truth is that any kind of addiction is unhealthy for you. When any kind of habit takes over your life in a compulsive way, then it’s a dangerous habit. 

I became anxious, grumpy, and even angry when I did not fit in a satisfying exercise sesh into my day. That’s what being addicted to something is. My brain felt that it wasn’t getting the chemicals it needed to be a fully functioning human being if I didn’t burn out my muscles in some way during the day… I was packing a workout outfit in my backpack just in case I had some time to fit in a workout at the recreation center after class got out. I was quite literally physically beating myself into the ground.

Now, waking up earlier a couple times a week to fit a run into your busy week is far from dangerous. It’s when your need to exercise begins to become more important than spending time with friends, sleeping, or doing classwork/work-work that it’s a sign that the compulsion is out of control. When injury or illness does not stop the desire to cram in the extra intense spin class or wake up for a 6am run, and when exercise begins to more negatively impact your health than benefit it that it becomes a problem. 

I spoke with Cal Poly exercise psychology lecturer Stefanee Maurice. She told me that when the need to exercise consumes your attention more than other priorities, there's a problem. “The exercise is almost like a drug. They let it interfere with their friendships, their family interactions, it gets in the way of their work. For example, they’re bailing out on friends because they have a class at the gym they want to go to." She told me. 

To my terror, in my self-induced exercise cyclone I started to actually gain weight around my midsection… which caused increased frustration. This was happening because I was over training and not letting my body recover. I was not resting. My body was going into shock mode trying to conserve every bit of fat that it had because it knew that I need fat to survive. Instead of ramping up the training more, I needed to just “take two.” But it was hard to justify sleeping in and “resting” over pushing through a 7am barre class because I needed the rush. I knew that I needed rest in order for my muscles to be able to rebuild themselves but I was controlled by the feeling I got from the chemicals released with each mountain climber, more than I cared about letting my body recover. "If you're not sleeping and you're always stressed out, that's almost going to negate the positive effects you would be getting from working out." Said Maurice. 

If you think about it, your body needs to rest or else your muscles won’t be able to repair themselves to build up stronger. They’ll only keep breaking down. Not to mention that this constant state of stress on my body was causing the release of the stress hormone “cortisol” which is linked to weight gain as well, and furthered by the lack of sleep I faced from getting up early to go to the exercise studio. Even elite athletes take rest days. The strongest muscles can’t withstand suppression of adequate rest. 

After speaking with some of the trainers at my exercise studio I came to the realization that my need to exercise was unhealthy. I started to take steps toward letting myself have time to recover and as frustrating as it was initially I’m feeling a whole lot better now overall now that I’m not physically exhausted all the time.

I was in the mindset that if elite athletes could work out as much as they do and they can be fine, then I could do it too! But I learned that you can’t compare yourself to elite athletes because they’re equipped with professional resources such as nutritionists and personal trainers to make sure they’re getting the exact right kind and amount of exercise at the right time for them. They don’t just jam in multiple exercise classes a day and then eat a Powerbar, they don't put their bodies at risk for future injury through malnutrition or overuse. The relationship that they have with exercise is a positive one rather than being compulsive. They have schedules and specific restricted diets… and to be honest, that’s just no fun at all. After all I mean, happy hour is every day at Luna Red downtown from 3-6pm but I bet you won’t catch an Olympic athlete there grabbing a sangria when they’re training for the biggest two weeks of their lives. 

Ultimately, it's most important to have a balance. Listen to your body and if it says it needs rest, then listen. Only by doing this can you truly be a healthy and whole person. PLUS it doesn't matter how many pieces of pizza we eat right now because it’s college, or the sangria we drank at happy hour, as long as we keep a  healthy balance in our lives mentally and physically. So, stay mindful and take care of yourself, because this is the only body and mind that you get in this life.

If you have a friend who you think might have a problem with overexercising, have a non confrontational conversation and let them know that they're cared about no matter what and in a safe space to express what they're feeling. Here on Cal Poly's campus we have PULSE as a resource as well as counseling services. 

"At the end of the day it really is about control. Helping them learn how to take control of whatever true issue it is that they're dealing with is going to be something that's really important to their recovery." Said Maurice. "Scheduling rest days with them and helping them understand it's okay to take a day off, working out with them to help them slow things down a bit, and showing them support by being patient when they're dealing with their recovery is important." 

About The Author

I am a Journalism student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo minoring in Integrated Marketing Communications, with a passion for writing and media. My blog can be found at https://adulthoodinslo.wordpress.com/ and I can be reached at [email protected].