I'm Recovering From An Exercise Addiction

Originally Published: 
Nicole De Khors/Burst

I used to be a fanatic for Jane Fonda workout videos. In high school, I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get my workout in before school because with my part-time job and homework, there was no other time to make it work. Plus, we only had one TV and my family wanted to watch television after dinner and not see me in my electric blue spandex bouncing around with Jane.

At first, I liked this ritual. Exercising felt good to me. During my honeymoon period with Jane, I didn’t feel like I had to exercise every single day. A few days a week was enough, and it left me feeling energized and healthy.

I’m not sure when it turned into an obsession–something I told my self I had to do every single day of the week no matter what–I just know it did, and with that came a mental beat down if I even had thoughts about skipping a workout.

You are lazy. You are gross.

Get over it, you have time–what are you going to do instead?

If you skip it today, you will probably skip it tomorrow and then never get on track again.

I exercised at this rate for over three years without taking a single day off. Not even when I had the stomach flu all evening and was puking my brains out. Nope. I got up the next morning, put in that damn workout video with no volume so my parents wouldn’t find out, and exercised until I passed out on the floor.

I knew I had a problem, but I couldn’t stop. I was depressed, and I became dependent on the endorphins and fear that my weight and body would change if I stopped exercising, even for a day.

I’d cancel plans with friends or decline them all together if it interfered with my exercise routine. Even if someone suggested we go for a walk or run, it wasn’t enough for me. It had to be an intense, long session, or it wouldn’t do. So I’d run or walk with them, then put in my video anyway. I’d fall asleep in class and start having anxiety dreams about what would happen if I missed too many workouts.

When I went to college, I was somehow able to break free from this toxic pattern. I started teaching step-aerobics classes four days a week and realized that was enough. My mind became sharper, I was a lot more fun to be around, my body was healthier, the walls didn’t come crashing down, and I didn’t fall out of my routine despite taking a few days a week off.

In fact, I felt stronger and looked forward to my workout sessions–even if it was going for a walk with my roommate–like I never had before. This is how exercise is supposed to make you feel. I was no longer punishing myself with exercise, and I had found a way to move my body that brought me joy and made me feel good.

Back then, I had no idea exercise addiction was a thing even though I was a walking poster child for it. We are slammed with messages about all the benefits of moving our body, but it is true: you can do too much of a good thing.

As Safe Harbor Treatment Center reports, “When someone develops an obsession to working out and spends an abnormal amount of time exercising and feels anxious during periods when they’re not exercising, it’s possible that this person may have developed an exercise addiction.”

According to the article, about 3% of the U.S. population suffer from exercise addiction. While runners and competitive athletes are at a high risk of becoming addicted to the daily burn, so are technology users. The added pressure of tracking your progress and how many calories you burn during a workout can strip all the enjoyment out of it and make it feel like more of a chore you have to do and put you in an unhealthy competition with yourself.

Getting in a good sweat has been proven to get those mood-boosting chemicals — endorphins and dopamine — churning. Some start to crave that feeling and notice when they don’t exercise, they may not feel as happy so they keep at it — even if they are sick or injured.

Over-exercising has many side effects, such as physical injuries, strains on your relationships, and even feelings of anxiety and depression. Safe Harbor reports, “Individuals who overexercise in an addictive manner may find that exercising feeds into their depression and worsens their mood, especially when they cannot find the time to work out.”

To avoid getting addicted to exercise, it’s important to pay attention to the warning signs: Are you feeling tired and lethargic but refuse to take a day off? Are you blowing off other important priorities to get a workout in? Are you feeling like your mood depends on whether you can work out or not? Are you sneaking extra workouts in and hiding it from people?

Taking days off is an incredibly important part of maintaining physical and mental health. Pete McCall, CSCS, ACE-certified personal trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast tells NBC News, “One of the biggest mistakes people make in the pursuit of improved athleticism is going too hard on days they should be taking it easy.” McCall explains exercising is hard on the body, and we make the gains when we are resting, not when we are working.

So, if you are serious about being healthy, you have to rest. If that’s not an incentive to sleep in or have a chill evening on the sofa instead of hitting the gym, I don’t know what is.

As McCall reminds us, exercise puts physical stress on the body. And in order to see results from that stress, you need to give your muscles time to adapt and recover. “Fitness [improvements] happen after the workout, not during the workout,” McCall says.

I now love exercising in a healthy way, but I have to be completely transparent–sometimes the signs of exercise addiction still creep up on me.

Sometimes I still hear a voice berating me if I take a break. Those same old thoughts creep in. Old habits die hard, and I have to keep myself in check.

I still have to remind myself my body works best when it has time to rest and recover, and the most important thing I can do is listen when it talks to me. Your size isn’t a measure of your health, and the goal here is to be healthy and live my best life. Not run myself into the ground so I don’t have anything left for other activities and people I love.

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