You know what drives me nuts? This:
“The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen.”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe dedicated.”
Because what these messages really should say is this:
“The only bad workout is the one that you snuck in at 10pm and felt exhausted the whole time.”
“Pain is a sign that you are injured and need to stop.”
“Obsessed is a word that describes missing out on major family events to go for a run.”
Several years ago, when I was a hardcore runner and before I was a trainer, I got injured. Really injured. To the point where it literally hurt to sit, stand, walk and pretty much do anything except lie down with my legs extended. Before my injury (actually, multiple injuries) struck, I was on a mission to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I considered myself a levelheaded runner, but at some point during my training, I lost track of the big picture and I lost touch with my body. All that mattered was to qualify. As my body started to break down in July of 2008, beginning with plantar fasciitis, then a pulled hammie and then IT band and patellofemoral syndromes, I was in total denial. In August, I ran a half marathon knowing full well that I was injured. It was the last time I’d run for the next two years.
At the time, I certainly wouldn’t have called myself “addicted” to running, but looking back, I certainly was not healthy in my exercise habits. What I know now is that exercise addiction does exist, and that unfortunately, we (by “we” I mean the media, certain trainers and just people in general) are not doing much to stop it.
In an effort to “motivate” people to exercise, the mainstream fitness industry has perpetuated a message that no matter how crappy you feel, how injured you are, or what other priorities you have in life, you must work out. In fact, if you can break through all of these obstacles (and perhaps, puke a little during your next workout), you are a hero.
What’s really sad is that not only does this type of message make normal people feel guilty for not working hard enough, but also it promotes a mindset of extremism that can actually become dangerous. Physical consequences of exercise addiction and extreme exercise habits include increased risk for injury, exhaustion and even heart problems.
Recently, I interviewed Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas, PhD, co-authors of The Truth About Exercise Addiction (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, February 2015), for an article for Zelle.com, Runner’s World’s women’s website. (To read the article, click here.) In their book, Schreiber and Hausenblas define exercise addiction and expose it for the legitimate and serious problem that it is.
Schreiber, a former exercise addict and frequent writer on the topic of exercise addiction, shared with me her personal story and some of the key points in her book.
Nicole Radziszewski: When did you realize you were addicted to exercise?
Katherine Schreiber: When I was in college I was admitted to an inpatient program for an eating disorder. When I left the program, I pretty much started eating normally. But the first thing I did when I got out was go to the gym. My routines got longer and longer and I had no off days. I went from being satisfied with working out five days a week, for an hour and a half each day, to doing yoga for an hour in the morning, running three or eight miles, going to the gym and then doing yoga again before bed. I was socially isolated. All I did was go to class, work and exercise my ass off.
NR: What feelings would you experience if you missed a workout?
KS: I would go through withdrawal. The idea of not going to the gym made me anxious. I knew I had a problem and I was not healthy, but I couldn’t stop. I felt like I was out of control.
NR: How did you finally break free from your addiction?
KS: On and off I got therapy, but treatment was just reinforcing to me that I had a problem. I desperately needed to alter the pathways in my brain. It wasn’t until I sat down to write an article for Greatist on exercise addiction that I started to change. I decided I needed to put my story out there and look at the research on exercise addiction, so I connected with Heather [Hausenblas]. All around the same time, we got the book deal, I was attending graduate school, I got involved in stand-up comedy and I got a stress fracture. All these things helped unhinge me from my dependency on exercise to feel OK in my skin and to have higher self-esteem.
NR: How can someone know if she or he is addicted to exercise?
KS: A huge red flag is what happens when you are injured and receive medical advice to cut back. A healthy person would take time off. An exercise addict would get on the treadmill with a surgical boot—which is what I did. You feel you must persist despite illness, injury or medical advice. Another sign is that exercise is interfering with the rest of your life.
NR: What are the stats on exercise addiction? Has the prevalence increased in recent years?
KS: About .3 percent of the general population is addicted to exercise, but about 25 percent of runners are. We don’t have longitudinal data to compare the numbers over time, but anecdotally there has been an increase in the number of stories. I think people are starting to recognize it more.
NR: Do you think our culture encourages extreme exercise habits?
KS: I do believe our culture encourages it. I think it can be a conspicuous consumption kind of thing, a signaling of status. It’s another form of going into debt. I think the media triggers self-consciousness, to make ourselves try to look like something we can’t possibly look like because we are not Photoshoppable. I think the availability of tools to quantify ourselves really feeds into an obsessive mindset and discourages us from having an intuitive relationship with our bodies.
NR: What advice do you have for someone who is addicted to exercise?
KS: Start by setting limits. Go to the gym for 45 minutes and leave. (If you can’t, you might need to get help.) Also, one thing that helped me is to remind yourself that if you continue, you may injure yourself in a way that prevents you from being active at all.
For more information on exercise addiction, check out The Truth About Exercise Addiction (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, February 2015), available at Amazon.