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Despite not being officially recognised as a mental health disorder, exercise addiction is characterised by “similar negative effects on emotional and social health as other addictions”, with a recent study revealing that of the 120 gym goers evaluated, over 40% were at risk of the condition.

This is understandable when you consider how, today, every TV ad, Facebook post and Instagram ‘influencer’ is continuously reminding us that exercise is good for us, encouraging us to “crush those goals” and “start now” in the pursuit of “#gains”.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, there’s plenty of research to back this up, but at what point does working out become harmful like any other addiction?

Online writer, actor and web show host Ellen Clifford shares her experience: “…exercise addiction manifests differently in different people…for me, it stems from more than the desire to be healthy and burn calories.”

How did it start?

“I was raised in a family where the value of exercise was taught and inspired by my parents, who just wanted us to be healthy. If we didn’t walk to and from school, my parents would play music and have my brother and I dance around the house. Family vacations were often about going to national parks and hiking. My father either jogged or rode his bike five miles each way to work, even in the dead of winter. What I’m saying is, exercise was an important part of growing up.”

So my folks didn’t notice when I started being compulsive about exercise around age 8. I’d go through phases of, say, jogging around the yard 100 times before dinner. My mom just figured I was a kid burning off steam. After all, I’ve always been someone who tends to remain in motion. My foot jiggling and chronic fidgeting are probably annoying. The problem was that I had already started to associate exercise with earning the right to enjoy necessities for staying alive. I needed to complete those jogs before it was ok for me to sit down to dinner. Not only did it make me feel deserving, but it was also a way for me to manage anxiety. Working out IS addictive. You become a slave to those endorphins.

Exercising and eating

“My parents didn’t recognise any problem until my compulsive nature manifested itself in my diet. It was easier to “get away” with over-exercising than an eating disorder. Even in treatment. People notice if you aren’t eating, but not when you are silently jogging in place in the corner of your room in the middle of the night. So at age 12 when I began restricting my food and lost a lot of weight, my parents took action. That is when I had the first of many hospital stays for my diagnoses of both anorexia and depression”.

The slippery slope of addiction

“After high school graduation, I convinced my family that I would be okay to head off to the University of Chicago for college. Unmonitored, I did the classic swan dive into my disorders. My worst days looked like this: wake up at 5 and do jumping jacks and jogging in place in our rather large dorm closet (so as not to wake my roommate) for an hour and a half. Walk a mile to campus and go to a 7 am ballet class. Possibly stop by the student gym and lift weights. Go to classes until mid-afternoon.

Walk a mile back to the dorm and do homework. Maybe do a tae bo video. Walk a mile back to campus where the dining hall was and eat iceberg lettuce. Walk a mile back. Maybe do another workout. More homework, then a parade of fat-free food and eventually bed around 3. Then get up and do it again. By Christmas break that year I was hallucinating from lack of sleep. I was a skeleton walking around campus, worrying that I might fall over.”

Hospital: rehab for exercise addicts

“At home over the holiday break my parents drew the hard line and decided that rather than a brief hospital stay I needed to take a leave of absence from school and check into a long-term residential program. At that time I was out of my mind. There is a certain bodyweight at which your brain starts feeding on itself. As gruelling as my self-inflicted regimen was I could not imagine a way out. I was pretty sure if I kept up at the rate I was going I would die soon. I was good with that. Seemed like a solid plan.”

“In treatment, they quickly realised I couldn’t be trusted. I was working out in any way possible in any given moment of time when someone wasn’t watching. Well, I slept a little but would stealthily get up at the crack of dawn to do as much as I could without making noise. I was hiding food left and right.

As opposed to eating it. I was moved into the front room – the one across from the nurses’ station, with a transparent window in front. And then they installed someone to sit at the foot of my bed and keep an eye on me. This was also when they shoved a tube up my nose and down to my stomach and kept nutritional fluid dripping into me at a steady rate.

I was in treatment for more than a year. The first year I spent defying the rules as much as I could and denying that I wanted to get better. I’d have left but knew my parents would have me committed if I tried. So I stayed in treatment and got away with as much bad behaviour as I could.”

“Eventually, after so much treatment and time, I learned to care for—and about—myself. To love myself. I was as well as I had ever been, eager to explore the world I’d been ignoring in favour of broccoli and cardio.”

The battle with addiction

“Eating, food and cooking are now one of my chief joys in life…Exercise, however, remains something I have to battle with…like any addiction, it sneakily gets worse and worse. It is so easy to write off excess exercise as just being super healthy.”

“I have gone through phases where I get up, do my allotted healthy quota of exercise for the day and go on about my business. I’m OK. Then one day I do my workout but then also get invited to go on an afternoon hike. That evening I realise I feel like I truly DESERVED the right to relax. And it feels so good that the next day I NEED to do both morning and afternoon workouts. Or I can’t relax at night.

Then the next week I take a walk at noon — to stretch my legs, I swear! And then when I get back from drinks with friends on Friday night, I find an abs workout on YouTube and embark on a midnight workout, the fourth one of the day. And all these activities don’t feel optional. Suddenly I am turning down social plans because I won’t be able to fit in an extra workout. I am home, so I can sit on my exercise bike for an extra hour. It interferes with me living my life. That is when I know that it has crossed the line.”

“For me, it’s always a fine line between staying healthy and going overboard. And it sucks when I can’t get through my day without itching to get up and do some jumping jacks or at least a casual sun salutation. Plus, unlike when I quit smoking, I cannot say goodbye to exercise entirely.”

The road to recovery

“I have a variety of methods of managing my anxiety these days. I started a practice of transcendental meditation. I never believed I could sit still quietly for 20 minutes, much less twice a day but doing my meditations has helped me be someone who can then go on and focus on their day.”

Dealing with temptation

“…if I do a workout in the morning, and a friend asks me to take an evening walk around the reservoir, I’ll still say yes. But I’ll remind myself that it does not mean if I don’t fit in a workout the next day that things will be bad.”

“Through dealing with this addiction, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that if you recognise the problem and do the work required to recover, things can get much, much better. I’ve learned that even with the everyday struggle to keep my addiction in check, life can be good. And most of all, I’ve learned that I am not crazy, I am human. And that is a beautiful thing.”

If you think your ‘love’ of exercise is becoming unhealthy, don’t be scared to reach out to a loved one and consult a professional therapist, as well as investigate a self-love practice and meditation routine.



And if you’re suffering from exercise-induced inflammation, take Releaf MSM with Curcumin, a product with has natural anti-inflammatory properties that may help with the relief of pain and maintain healthy joints and connective tissue.

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Releaf Pharmaceuticals | Natural Health Supplements
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