It’s hard for me to reconcile in my mind that something I love so much can actually be hurting me. I fell in love with fitness when I was just 15. It was the early ’90s, the heyday of step aerobics and Spandex — and I was obsessed. I’d drag my mom out of bed before 6 a.m. so she could drive us to the club for our early morning class, rain or shine. My 20s were devoted to running races and adventure racing; my 30s to duathlons and triathlons. I turned 40 in October and nowadays it’s HIIT classes (If you’re a fan of HIIT, check out tis easy-on-the-joints workout.), boxing, more running, more weight training, more everything.
But, most mornings getting out of bed is not only a practice in patience, it’s one of resolve. I hurt everywhere: My knees are shot and my back has become the most spontaneous thing about me lately. My shoulders are wrought with tendonitis, as are my ankles. People in my gym tribe joke I’m “The Modifier” because if injuries prevent me from lunging, OK then, I’ll squat. If I can’t run, I’ll row. There are days I know I should stop but I don’t, and classes I should just skip but I stay.
Why? Because I like reaching a peak and knowing it’s not the top of the mountain; I relish the pain as much as I do the pleasure, and failure is my greatest turn-on: If I fail today, you can bet I won’t do the same tomorrow. Fitness is my therapy, and I would feel lost without it. You may be thinking: Lara, do you do this every day? No, not exactly. I have sat on the sidelines when I know a particular injury will only heal with rest, and I’ve skipped out on a workout to drink wine with my girlfriends instead. So does this still mean I’m addicted? Maybe.
What is addiction?
Addiction is a strong word, and when we think about what that definition means it’s natural for our minds to go straight to drugs, food — even sex. It’s when we add exercise into the mix that stuff starts to get controversial. For the most part, research on the topic is minimal, and most experts will say that only roughly three percent of the overall population suffers from an exercise addiction.
Dr. Bruce Oddson, an associate professor at the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University considers the vocabulary around addiction to be, well, abused. “Addiction itself has become pretty popular and mainstream,” he says, “but most of what we conceive as an ‘addiction’ is a problem with mental health first and foremost — blaming the drug itself is sort of the last step in the chain.” (Find out if exercise is the prescription you need to improve your mental health.)
Instead of using the word addiction, Dr. Oddson prefers to characterize it as something else altogether: harmonious versus obsessive passion, and deciding what side of the scale you’re on. The “harmonious” people are passionate about exercise, and they are fitting their life around it. The “obsessives” are different: they’re wrapping their entire lives around the activity instead, and with that comes negative associations. They feel guilty if they don’t work out at a certain level every day, and they lose that sense of reward associated with doing it.
“Imagine two people going to CrossFit,” he says. “One is becoming connected to everyone there, is socializing, and participating in classes as she wants, at the level she wants… the other is becoming increasingly isolated by her ever-growing participation at the gym. That’s the one I’m worried about.”
Kirstyn Brown’s love of fitness sparked when, fresh out of journalism school, she landed an editorial gig at a popular fitness magazine. “The atmosphere was really team-oriented: We would go to spin classes together, yoga; we had a salad club at lunch. All of us were really immersed in living this fit lifestyle.”
The more time went on, the more results began to show: She had muscles. She had abs. She was strong. Before long, her appreciation of exercise morphed into something else — obsession. One workout a day no longer satiated that much-desired endorphin rush, so she increased her dosage to two a day, then three. She got up every morning at 4:30 a.m., eager to work out. “I was fit as f*ck,” says Brown, “but it came at a cost. I was late to everything because I had to fit in a workout, or I cancelled plans just so I could avoid any temptations of food or drinks.”
But with an extensive workout schedule came damaged hormones.
A breaking point arrived for Brown about a year later, when she wasn’t exercising quite so excessively but she found herself collapsing in bed most evenings at 9 p.m. only to struggle to get out of bed every morning. Blood work revealed she had seriously damaged her hormonal balance, which also led to adrenal-relaxed health issues. Five years later, she continues to work with a naturopath. “I’ve had to completely rearrange my mind-set,” says Brown. “It’s no longer an all-or-nothing pursuit of fitness. I work out three-to-four times a week now with plenty of rest and recovery, and I’ve never felt better.”
Stories like Brown’s are more common than you think, and with good reason: Exercise is meant to be good for us, not bad. Research suggests that just ten minutes of physical exertion can regulate stress, reduce anxiety and generally make us happier. What makes it unique is that working out is viewed as something quite noble: Friends applaud your commitment, and the scale is a quantifiable measure to gauge your success. Sure, there may be a few bumps in the road, namely fatigue and the potential for an overuse injury, but those aren’t always viewed negatively; rather they’re often praised as hard-earned battle wounds.
How to recognize when enough exercise is enough.
The big question still looms, however, and it’s a very tricky one at that: What exactly is the barometer of someone who has gone too far, and what are the triggers that shift this fun hobby into a compulsive dependency?
To make sense of it all, Dr. Heather Hausenblas, associate dean of the School of Applied Health Sciences and professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University, as well as co-author of the book The Truth About Exercise Addiction, has designed the Exercise Dependence Scale, which assesses a person’s risk for exercise addiction.
Modelled after the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ protocol for identifying substance addictions, questions range from asking whether you skip out on social functions because of exercise to whether you feel unable to reduce how long you exercise for.
She’s quick to add that even if you meet some of the criteria, it doesn’t mean you’re addicted — per se. “It’s a challenge to find that pinpoint because it’s different from person-to-person, but exercise addiction should not be confused with a high level of commitment to a physical activity,” she says. “Addicts experience loss of control such that exercise becomes an obligation and excessive, and they disrupt major facets of their lives — socially or occupationally — to meet the demand.”
Exercise addiction is not classified as a mental health disorder, but it is still characterized by similar negative effects on emotional and social health, just like other addictions. Spending hours at the gym could be a sign of exercise dependence, as can other “signs” that are closely associated with addictive personalities: needing to do more to get the same effect, doing more than you plan to, feeling symptoms of withdrawal (like depression or anxiety) when you skip a day or two.
So… am I? Am I an addict? I think the jury is still out on this one, but what I will say is this: I didn’t work out yesterday, and I likely won’t tomorrow either. Instead of putting myself through my usual paces of guilt or shame, I feel liberated; in a way, free. Life sure is complicated, but it can still be measured by those small, incremental miracles.
Think you’re addicted to exercise? Don’t miss these 7 signs.