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  • Exercise Addiction. When too much is not enough.


    By Travis Steffen on Thursday, August 6, 2009in Exercises  

    animagesFor those of us that have made exercise a significant part of our lifestyles, there is a small percentage that takes it too far. Exercise addiction is rare but becoming common enough to begin receiving much needed attention and awareness.

    Like any other addiction, a fine line separates a healthy dedication to fitness and a potentially life altering obsession. Exercise addiction follows the same patterns as others like alcoholism, or addiction to drugs, cigarettes or sex. Excessive workouts may illicit a profound payoff, temporarily masking physical, mental or emotional pain or upset. Someone suffering from an exercise addiction may experience a false sense of control or power over their life which wears off quickly, requiring another shot of exercise induced endorphins. Much like an alcoholic may use liquor or a stressed out smoker may puff a pack or two a day, the exercise addict uses fitness as a ‘healthy’ coping mechanism. For those of us that enjoy a healthy, balanced relationship with fitness, our workout payoffs range from things like weight maintenance or loss, stress relief, improved body composition, cardiovascular health improvements, disease prevention, muscular hypertrophy and many others. For those addicted it goes far beyond all of that.

    It can be difficult to identify when a love for exercise becomes unhealthy but generally speaking if workouts become the absolute most important thing in a person’s life over and above everything else, there may be a problem. If all other obligations such as work, family and social activities suffer and take a backseat to workouts, a once healthy commitment has become an illness. Exercise addiction is even more than spending an incredible amount of time on the treadmill. Often people will work out twice or more daily, for hours on end. Those suffering may experience severe anxiety if something or someone gets in the way of their workout and they are likely to continue with intense sessions through illness and injury. An obsession with severe dieting often goes hand in hand with exercise addiction as well. Warning signs may include an intense obsession with calorie counting, chronic dieting including crash diets and near starvation, anxiety in social situations where food may be present and general discomfort with food.

    Exercise addiction can potentially create a plethora of mental and physical health complications including anxiety, nervousness, tension, depression, head and stomach aches, injury, severe mental and physical fatigue, relationship crises, irritability, weight loss, depressed immune system, kidney damage, muscle atrophy, anemia and arthritis. Not exactly the picture of health and wellness that an intelligent, balanced exercise routine is intended to offer.

    Cindy’s Story
    In my days as a ‘bar maid’ way back when, I worked with a woman I’ll call ‘Cindy’. When I met Cindy she was 29 years old, tall, blonde, very athletic, attractive and seemingly happily married. She was what you might call the typical ‘Type A’ personality as she was highly competitive, aggressive, ambitious, impatient and very concerned with her status. A perfectionist in every way, her hair was always perfect, makeup applied with precision and she always had her T’s crossed and I’s dotted.

    Cindy could be described as the quintessential exercise addict. Nothing and no one stood in the way of her twice (sometimes thrice) daily cardio and weight training sessions. It became very clear that working out was a daily necessity over and above everything else including her job, her friends and her husband. I never saw Cindy put anything in her mouth besides raw, green vegetables and the occasional 2 ounce portion of chicken breast. She took dieting to a whole new level and my estimation is that she consumed maybe 500 calories a day. When you serve in a pub that is known for its food it can be difficult to stick to a healthy eating plan. You’re surrounded by nachos, chicken fingers, wings and my personal ultimate weakness, poutine (for my American friends, poutine is a French Canadian indulgence consisting of French fries topped with gravy and lots of melted cheese). Cindy never waivered. Ever! In fact she was one of those people that would remind you how many calories were in the party mix you just inhaled.

    Two years after I met Cindy, she was about to embark on a very bitter, nasty divorce. It seems her triathlete husband had tired of taking second place to four hour workouts and had met another woman that was by Cindy’s’ standards ‘obese’ at 130 pounds. Her friends had slowly dwindled from her life as they too grew tired of discussing nothing but the gym or how fattening their spinach salad was when they took her for lunch.

    I’m happy to say that in recent years, Cindy has found happiness with a new husband and a baby girl. After receiving counseling to delve into her deeper problems that were masked by exercise and diet addiction, she is closer to realizing inner peace. Cindy now holds one gym membership as opposed to six and spends about 75% less time there. How does she look? Better than ever! She looks happier, healthier, younger, leaner, and stronger and now actually has some color in her face. Her recovery didn’t happen overnight and it took hard work but I’m sure Cindy would agree that it was time and energy well spent.

    Exercise addiction is closely related to Obsessive Compulsive disorder, Bulimia, Anorexia and anxiety disorders, so these should be considered risk factors and monitored closely. If you feel that you or someone you know may be addicted, there are some signs to watch for.
    - Continuing to train through illness or injury
    - Keeping extensive records of exercise including calories burned
    - Making exercise the main focus of each day
    - Social withdrawal
    - Fatigue and irritability
    - Weight loss
    - An obsession with dieting and calorie counting
    - Deceit in order to exercise
    - Irritability, aggressiveness or anxiety if a workout is missed

    Exercise addiction, like any other can be successfully treated assuming it’s acknowledged. A break from exercise along with cognitive therapy and gradual re-introduction to fitness is usually the best approach.

    As with everything else in life, balance is the key to having a healthy relationship with diet and exercise. It is possible to have too much of a good thing and that includes fitness. It’s important to make your work out routines and a balanced, nutrient dense diet a priority in life, but that needs to include balancing it out with plenty of rest, a social life, enjoyment of other activities, keeping up with responsibilities, work and even occasionally…ice cream!

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    About Travis
    Travis Steffen is a Master Trainer and founder of WorkoutBOX. After years of experience training professional athletes and thousands of others just like you, he knows exactly what it takes to get you in serious shape. Follow his expert guidance and you're guaranteed to get amazing results.
    Want to hear even more of what Travis has to say? Keep in touch with him on Facebook and Twitter!

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