Published On: Mon, Feb 25th, 2013

Trapped! Exercise Addiction Is a Road to Heartache

runningTrapped!  Exercise Addiction

Is a Road to Heartache

-by Mark Becker

Ever since I can remember, I have always had an addictive personality. I have obsessive compulsive tendencies and always seem to operate with my hair on fire. In some areas of my life, this has served me well. In other areas, not so much.

That said, I strongly encourage people to accurately assess their priorities in life and act accordingly. For example, don’t be fixated on being a financial success and a collector of “things”. Never neglect what’s most important in life – family and friends.

The same can be said for health. While health should always be a priority, too much of a good thing is never a good thing. Many people have asked me why, in my early 50s, I have a persistent limp. Despite a chronically sore ankle due largely to the fact that I have run 100 marathons, I continue to log my miles, ignoring an obsession that seems to be doing more harm than good. Why do I do what I do?

I can honestly say I love my workouts and plan my life around them. When I’m unable to get in my 2-3 hours of daily training because of weather, travel or the gym being closed, I feel this extreme anxiety and guilt. Am I acting crazy, lazy, or both?

Deep down, I know I have an exercise addiction. I am overly committed to an exercise routine probably to the detriment of my body, as well as my psychological and social well-being. However, before I throw myself completely under the bus, I do get extreme gratification rom being able to compete in marathons, triathlons and rough water swims in my fifth decade on this planet. Exercise is therapy for me and truly adds so much to my life.

In fact, if you want to feel better, have more energy and even live longer, exercise is the very best medicine. The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are undisputable and yours for the taking, regardless of age, sex or physical ability. In fact, according to mayoclinic.com, exercise:

  • Controls weight
  • Helps to combat health conditions and diseases
  • Improves mood
  • Increases energy
  • promotes better sleep
  • Significantly increases libido
  • Can be fun

Now, lets circle back to obsessive exercise. While the obesity epidemic continues to rage on for both children and adults, most Americans continue to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Nevertheless, there is a small group of active people for whom exercise is truly an obsession and pursued despite physical injuries, damaged relationships and time away from work, family and social activities.

Compelled to Exercise
Mark Becker

Mark Becker

In doing my research for this article, I unearthed a 2005 New York Times article written by Jane E Brody entitled, “Fit Is One Thing; Obsessive Exercise Is Another”. The New York Times article cites another article – this one a June issue article published in “The Physician and Sports Medicine” by John H. Draeger, MD and Alayne Yates, MD, psychiatrists at the University of Hawaii, and Douglas Crowell, a sports scientist in Honolulu. They described a 38-year-old physician and marathon runner with a busy practice and large family. He began to experience progressive deterioration in his running times. Ultimately, he visited a sports medicine clinic and complained of persistent fatigue, muscle soreness, lack of energy and always worrying about his physical performance and training routine – often in the middle of the night.

These Hawaiian doctors coined the term “obligatory exerciser” in an effort to describe someone “who feels obligated or compelled to continue exercising despite the risk of adverse physiologic or psychological consequences“. Additional symptoms may also include social isolation.

When facing performance digression, these obligatory exercisers will train harder to reverse the trend. This was me in a nutshell!! And for the hard-core obligatory exerciser, training is second to none. It is even more important than work, school, friends and family. This activity will ultimately cross over from being a hobby and fun activity to one where there is no free choice.

The question then becomes, “How much aerobic activity does an adult need to maintain optimal health?” According to mayoclinic.com, several factors come into play. First, longer, less frequent sessions of aerobic exercise have no clear advantage over shorter, more frequent sessions of activity. Any type of aerobic activity contributes to cardiovascular fitness. Additionally, short spurts of activity, for example, three 10-minute walks taken throughout the day, offer great aerobic benefits. The most important consideration is that you must make regular physical activity part of your lifestyle.

For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends:

  • At least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (running) periodically throughout the week. Activity sessions should be at least 10 minutes long.
  • Resistance training (weights) at least twice a week.

That said, aerobic activity that burns 2,000 to 3,500 calories a week is considered the amount of exercise needed to attain and maintain optimal health. 

If you have established weight loss and fitness objectives above and beyond normal expectations, you will need to increase activity based on those objectives. Furthermore, dietary adjustments will likely need to be made. These will include incorporating a supplement regimen to bridge nutritional gaps left by consuming the processed foods that are so prevalent in the modern Western diet.

Moreover, while exercise does promote circulation of the blood and oxygenation of tissues, excessive exercise can also stress the heart, arteries, joints, and glands

Healing and rebuilding is largely a biochemical phenomenon, requiring proper nutrients and plenty of rest so that energy can be directed to the areas of the body that have been broken down and are in need of healing.

And I repeatedly neglected this phenomenon.

What made things worse, was if I skipped a workout, I felt depressed, constipated, irritable and exhausted.  Why did I feel this way? This occurs because exercise stimulates the adrenal glands and can keep exhausted glands functioning.

According to Molly Kimball, dietitian at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, the following signs are an indication that exercise is becoming an addiction and is creating undue physical and psychological stress:

  • Continuing to train even through pain, illness or injury
  • Experiencing anxiety when a workout is missed
  • Constantly pontificating about your sport, training schedule and diet
  • Neglecting other important areas of your life
  • Justifying excessive exercise as necessary in an effort to prepare for participation in that sport
  • Having friends and family notice a loss of perspective

Brainphysics.com details the following additional symptoms as indicators of possible addictive behavior toward exercise:

  • Always working out alone, isolated from others
  • Always following the same rigid exercise routine
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily.
  • Fixation on weight loss or calories burned.
Confronting Exercise Addiction

According to WebMD.com, treatment for exercise addiction often includes encouraging obligatory exercisers to take up more social forms of exercise such as yoga and cycling instead of the solitary pursuits of running or going to the gym. Gyms are also breeding grounds for perfectionist pathology.

Health professionals urge compulsive exercisers to recognize perfectionist pathology and the fact they have a problem that is negatively impacting health as well as quality of life. These people must understand that change is necessary and needed. Many obligatory exercisers have low self esteem and self worth. This may have resulted from an experience in childhood. Or maybe addiction is part of the family gene pool.

Many runners who morph into obligatory exercisers initially become addicted to the infamous “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria caused by the brain’s release of endorphins. I know I did!

Nonetheless, eventually, the adrenals burn out. What was once extremely gratifying has now become a dreadful chore. For some reason, it goes bad and the compulsive exerciser feels trapped.

Exercise dependency is not bad as long as you understand your path and pull back when appropriate. Often, the perfectionist pathology that develops for the addicted exerciser may be off base. But when this thinking progresses too far, it can be unhealthy. Consider psychotherapy as a way of getting off this treadmill.

Also, talk to parents, coaches, friends or other athletes in an effort to regain a healthier perspective on exercise. Understanding the importance of recovery, days off from exercise, and the body’s need to regenerate itself is crucial. An insightful perspective of this condition will go a long way toward reversing this negative trend. And joy and satisfaction may actually re-emerge again.

about the author…

Mark BeckerMark Becker is an Account Manager for Vivion, a raw materials distributor, based in Vernon, CA. He has worked as a natural products sales and marketing executive for 15 years. Mark has written more than 300 articles and has hosted or been a guest on more than 500 radio shows. He obtained a bachelor’s in journalism from Long Beach State University and did his master’s work in communications at Cal State Fullerton. For almost 30 years he has participated in numerous endurance events, including more than 150 triathlons of Olympic distance or longer, 100 marathons and numerous other events including ultramarathons and rough water swims from Alcatraz to the mainland. He has relied on a comprehensive dietary supplement and homeopathic regimen to support his athletic, professional and personal endeavors. Follow Mark Becker on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/marklbecker/posts/387591877933686#!/energyatlast. Follow Mark on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/becker_mark. For more information, access www.vivioninc.com or www.EnergyatLast.com.

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