Exercise is an essential part of wellness. For some people, though, it can be as addictive as a drug. Just like those who take painkillers never intend on developing a dependency, fitness fanatics can suffer a similar fate. This article is to share my experience with exercise addiction, how to see traits of a dependency, and how to break free.
I suffered from a spectrum of eating disorders, anxiety, and body dysmorphia from thirteen into my late thirties. One can read about my descent into anorexia in my Life with Anorexia, part I blog. During my twenties, the disordered eating consisted of safe foods or foods I entrusted as clean, low fat, and trustworthy, not to allow me to gain weight.I started exercising with a fitness trainer to tone up for my upcoming wedding and discovered a new world I had not yet explored.
Exercise revealed opportunities for inner challenges and satisfaction when working through those struggles during each session. This newfound love inspired me to work out individually on days I was not with my trainer. My workouts became valuable “ME TIME” that inadvertently kept me away from a living hell at home with my first husband’s unpredictable but weekly fits of rage.
What started as innocent fitness, took a dangerous turn. My first warning sign was adhering to a strict self-made fitness schedule. I often pushed through muscle and joint aches as I ran on a racetrack after work to escape the fear, confusion, and frustration of being married to an abusive man for two years. Once I developed my courage to leave him, exercise became my only constant as I worked to rebuild my life throughout our separation and divorce process. Though consistent physical training is a beneficial habit for weight maintenance, overall health, and stress relief, I developed an unhealthy dependency. It made me feel in control of my life.
My second warning sign was an unhealthy dependency on my fitness tracker, which I wore during all exercise sessions to capture my caloric burn. I meticulously wrote down all of the food that crossed my lips in a journal. I also recorded my workouts and how many calories my fitness tracker indicated I had burned each time. I added estimates of my caloric intake in the margins and calculated my caloric burn daily like a scorecard.
My understanding of working out became irrational. Though my trainer sessions grew to three one-hour-long weight lifting sessions a week, I did not count weight lifting as exercise since it did not generate a full-body sweat. Whatever I was doing was not enough. I added 30 to 50-mile long bike rides or hour-long elliptical sessions each evening, working towards a 600+ calorie burn before I stepped off the machine. I did not stop the elliptical until the calorie reading met my satisfaction.
I never took a rest day EVER. Constant muscle soreness was a badge of honor to my dedication to living a “healthy” lifestyle. My trainer warned me that I was doing too much and asked me for what event I was training to do such much strenuous activity. I ignored him because deep down inside, I knew my level of activity was how I identified with myself. My dependency suffocated me. I feared if I changed my habits, I would no longer control my weight, body, and daily schedule. I did not have the emotional strength to let my body and my day unfold with whatever outcomes came my way.
I joined a bicycling club during my marital separation. My bike ride distances started around 30 miles but became longer and eventually reaching 100 miles several times a month. As my mileage increased, I never reduced the other activities in my fitness plan. I never added more food to my nutrition plan except the gel fuel consumed during the rides.
One day, not even one mile beyond the start area of a 100-mile group bike ride during an organized race event, my heart rate went out of control. My legs felt like stones, I could not breathe, and my body gave up short of collapsing. I went to the medical tent and learned I had “hit the wall.”
My year of reckless exercise sessions coupled with a low-calorie diet depleted my energy stores. My doctor prescribed a month of total rest to help my body recover. I executed my month of rest on my twisted terms. The doctor said walking was acceptable, so I walked 8+ miles to the store to go shopping whenever possible. I did core exercises while I watched television. As it turns out, the mind’s healing process from exercise dependency is on a different track than the body’s healing process.
Seeing a counselor weekly and working with my trainer (and NOT my unrealistic workout plan) was the only way to come down from my addiction slowly.
I had to learn to trust my body and my emotional maturity to handle daily events that did not elicit a calorie burn.
I had to see for myself that my body did not balloon up, nor did I lose my physical conditioning, when I reduced my amount of exercise.
I talked to God a lot and asked Him to help me understand the marvel of His creation in my body. Soon I started regretting the stress I put my body through. I discovered that God developed an abundance of activities we should do to love and experience life fully. Exercise is just a small part of them. I had to learn to fill my time with other beneficial activities, such as being with friends, reading books, volunteering, and watching television.
Exercise is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. A balanced exercise regimen should include two to three days of higher-intensity cardio and several days of weight-bearing resistance training sessions, inclusive of flexibility and stretching exercises.
As for the rest of our time, we should practice mindfulness with ourselves, friends, and family. Be fully present wherever you are and in your calling. At work – FOCUS on your work; At home – ENGAGE with your loved ones; During downtime – LISTEN to your feelings and respond accordingly.
Exercise should BENEFIT our lives. We live better because of its results. When exercise becomes a central, controlling part of our day, it interferes with our social life, relationships, and work performance. Severe emotional distress often occurs when life “interrupts” our ability to fulfill our workout.
As a fitness trainer, I help people craft healthy workout plans while supporting the emotional transformation in the journey. Contact me HERE to set up a free consultation on how I can be your fitness journey coach.