Hi, I’m Grace (Hi Grace) and I’m addicted to exercise

I’m eight or nine years old. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror with my mom while I try on the new clothes she’s bought me. She stops me as I’m sliding into jeans, pointing to the inside of my thighs where a bunch of puffy pink zigzag lines have completely invaded my skin. She explains what stretch marks are and I try to listen, not really absorbing the words. I’m young; I haven’t yet experienced the body image issues that pair with puberty. I know I’m a little bigger than my friends at school, but I don’t mind. Nonetheless, my mom sets up a plan for me to begin waking up early every summer day and exercising on her old rickety treadmill. I comply, finding I actually enjoy watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch on Nickelodeon every day while I walk along.

I’m thirteen years old, and my exercise plan has faded, but the body image issues have attacked with full force. I know I’m not skinny like I’m supposed to be. I’m thirteen years old, and one of the boys in my class calls me a hippo one day. I go home and cry and cry and cry even harder. I look in the mirror and realize I agree with him. I decide to begin exercising again. Except this time, it’s not as fun.

I’m sixteen years old, and I’m getting home from school every single day and running straight to the treadmill. I’m smaller now, but still not small enough, and I can’t understand why. I eat much healthier than my friends and none of them ever work out. I’m beginning to realize how unfair the world is, but that doesn’t change the idea in my mind that the only way to look in the mirror and not hate what I see is to spend hours a day on that same treadmill, walking toward nothing for hours on end.

I’m eighteen years old, and the campus gym has become my new home. It doesn’t matter if the new friends I’m still struggling to feel included with invited me to dinner, I have to go to the gym. It doesn’t matter if I have three exams the next day and haven’t studied nearly enough, I have to go to the gym. It doesn’t matter if I’m sick, I have to go to the gym. 

I’m eighteen years old, and I go home to visit my grandma. She looks at me and asks if I’m even eating at school. I don’t understand, because I still look in the mirror and see the same stretch mark-covered hippo I saw when I was thirteen.

I’m eighteen years old, and I develop severe tendonitis in my knee from new running shoes that don’t fit quite right. It doesn’t matter how much it hurts. I keep running every evening - eight o’clock on the dot - because I’m finally in shape enough to effortlessly make it three or four or even five miles a day on the treadmill and I can’t lose it. I keep putting in miles a day despite knowing it’s only making the injury worse, until one day I’m limping up to the front of an auditorium to turn in my film studies midterm and my knee gives out and I collapse in front of two hundred of my peers.

I’m eighteen years old, and even just a few weeks off from exercise sends me into a dark depression.

I’m nineteen years old, and I go see my doctor for my yearly physical. I tell her I’m concerned about my thyroid levels, because my metabolism seems to be remarkably slow. I explain that I’ve plateaued at the same weight since I was sixteen despite increasing my workouts constantly and trying about every diet change imaginable. She runs some tests but tells me my weight - although technically hovering right along the fine line between “normal” and “overweight” on the BMI scale - is nothing to worry about because my heart rate and blood pressure show I’m in incredible shape and we all know Muscle Weighs More than Fat! The tests tell me my metabolism is indeed “unluckily slow without much hope of ever improving,” but not “unluckily slow” enough to do anything about but keep investing hours in the gym every day, because if I take more than a day off, I’ll instantly gain back ten pounds.

I’m twenty years old, and I’m sitting in my clinical psychology lecture. My professor drones on about addiction-related disorders, and my ears perk up when she mentions how there’s currently a major debate in the psych world about whether exercise addition should be included in the next version of the DSM. I listen to the group of girls behind me laugh. “That’s so stupid,” they say. “Who could get addicted to exercise?”

I’m twenty years old, and I’m finally accepting I have a problem.

I don’t really know what I’m expecting to gain by writing this article. I guess I’m just tired of seeing article after article about How to Find Motivation to Go to the Gym! and Why You Need to be Exercising Every Single Day! Because while exercise is extremely important and it’s great to motivate each other, sometimes all I need is an article saying Hey, Maybe Skip the Gym Today Because You Haven’t Taken a Day off in Three Full Weeks and Your Body is Pissed! 

Another super cool thing about this whole situation: I’ve tried opening up to people before. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve felt like a coward, breaking down and sharing one of my biggest secrets with someone, only to have them laugh and go on about how much they wish they were addicted to exercise, because they wish they had that sort of motivation. It only makes me feel invalid. Like I should be happy that I’m putting my body through so much every day, because I have the motivation. The motivation to let my grades slip because I have to work out instead of studying. The motivation to miss out on so many opportunities and new friends and only be involved in very few low-commitment clubs, because the gym calls every single night. The motivation to stay sick with a very mild cold for weeks, because I can’t allow my body the rest it needs to recover. The motivation to feel so badly about myself after trying to just take one day off that I can’t even focus on anything else. But sure, keep wishing you had that motivation.

By now, exercise is such a major part of my life, it’s impossible to imagine a life where I don’t push myself to the limits seven days a week. I sit and watch to people scarf down thousands of calories and listen to them talk about how they haven’t ever stepped foot in a gym and instead of getting angrily jealous like I used to, I simply sit in awe. What do you mean you don’t have to block out an hour a day to go run until you can’t breathe? What do you mean you can eat so much without calculating exactly how many minutes on a Stairmaster it’d take to sweat all the calories out?

And while I still am in no way happy with my body and probably never will be, I’ve realized lately that I’m much worried about falling out of shape than gaining too much weight back. If I were to write the DSM criteria for exercise addiction, I’d include a “person exercises each part of the body daily” symptom. Instead of having a leg day and an ab day and an arm day like all the Instagram fitness models, I have to work out everything every day, because I convince myself my calf muscles will completely disintegrate if I skip even one leg day. The thing is, I don’t even look like someone who goes to the gym every day. No matter how many crunches I do, my belly’s still not flat. No matter how many miles I run, there’s still cellulite on my thighs. I know it’s ridiculous. I know. There’s just nothing I can seem to do about it. 

Again, I wish I could say why I’m writing this article. I’m not looking for pity or anything of the sort - I know there are so many worse addictions out there and to someone who’s never experienced this issue, it probably seems laughable. I think maybe if I finally put this out there, maybe, just maybe, I’ll do something about it. 

After all, I already have accepted that the problem is there. For years, I told myself it was fine and my drive to work out was more impressive than anything. I convinced myself what I was doing was healthy. Just within the past few months, even, I’ve began to realize too much exercise is a very real and dangerous thing. And, I’ve been abusing exercise for way too long.

I have been actively working to give my body the rest it deserves. I’m apologizing to my body and striving to develop a healthy relationship with the gym. My mission is to find the super thin line between using exercise as the stress reliever and mood-booster I need, while also realizing when rest days are in order and actually taking them. 

Last week, when my boyfriend I only get to see once a week or so came to visit on a weeknight when I’d been dreaming about my workout all day, I was able to hold myself back to spend time with him, instead of leaving him in my room while I went for a run. A few weeks ago, when I felt a cold coming on, I stayed in bed and drank tea instead of convincing myself an hour on the elliptical would do the trick (and, for the record, the cold went away much faster.) Just a few nights ago, while needing a break from studying but also knowing my grade would suffer if I took enough time for a full workout, I opted for a quick yoga session in my room and returned to the books right after.

I feel myself on the road to recovery. Even if I’m not there yet, I’m working toward it. There’s no denying that I have a definite problem and accepting that is arguably the hardest part. 

If any other person on this Earth can relate to any part of this, I’m with you. I know it’s not easy. It’s not easy to accept you’ll never be fully happy with your reflection. It’s surely not easy to try to cut back on something you’ve relied on daily since middle school. It feels like I’m growing apart from an old friend. But the truth is, the relationship with that friend hasn’t been healthy for years. But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond repair. Sometimes, distance is exactly what a relationship needs.

So, if anyone else out there needs the Hey, Maybe Skip the Gym Today Because You Haven’t Taken a Day off in Three Full Weeks and Your Body is Pissed! article, here it is. Give yourself a rest. You definitely deserve it, and I promise your body will thank you.



Images courtesy of fitnessatrium.com and popsugar.com