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How One Woman Overcame Her Exercise Addiction

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I can trace the roots of my exercise addiction back to the first time I snuck off to my room to do jumping jacks, lunges, burpees—anything that would up my heart rate and help me take control of my body. It started after my parents sent me, at 13, to residential facility after they found out I was skipping class to drink and smoke pot. Instead of confronting the self-esteem issues that had led me to substance abuse, I just found a new way of controlling my body: through exercise.

The day I was released from the facility and let back into my high school, I joined a gym, started shedding weight, and embraced the identity of a “fit girl.” The social reinforcement I received for my efforts salved my self-consciousness and insecurity. Outside the treatment center, fitness wasn’t a negative thing—it was hailed as the paramount of perfection, attractiveness, and appeal. (Read about 13 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise.)

Over time, exercise became a means of coping with all imaginable upsets—conflicts with friends, rejection from boys, fights with my parents—and it remained my go-to method of dissolving the pervasive discomfort I felt in my own skin.

In high school, I spent my lunches at the local sports club, passing time between classes on the elliptical, stairmaster, and treadmill. After school, I’d return to the gym for at least one more hour. By senior year, my fixation on calories burnt, repetitions performed, and group fitness classes completed intensified. Working out dominated my focus and my life. The more of it I did, the more I felt I needed.

In college, my routines expanded. I chose courses based on how they’d fit my gym schedule. I lost weight, obsessed over nutrition, and finally took a semester off to check into an eating disorder clinic, convinced my caloric restriction was the real issue at hand. But the very day I left the program, my first stop was a gym. (Find out What to Do If Your Friend Has an Eating Disorder.)

Admitting the Problem
It took me years to acknowledge that what I was doing was anything but admirable. What incentive did I have to admit my tireless trips to the gym were driven by disorder? I didn’t want to stop hearing how great I looked, how much other gym-goers wished they could “be like me.” My self-esteem hinged on how much I lifted, how far I ran, and how little time I spent sitting still.

The anxiety, irritability, and worthlessness I felt when not working out propelled me to exercise through herniated discs, stress fractures, two years of not menstruating, torn muscles, and shin splints. After landing my first full-time job, I devoted two hours at the fitness club near my office each morning before making it to my desk by 9 a.m. I’d take additional gym breaks during lunch and often return after work before heading home to eat dinner (I was constantly famished) and crash from exhaustion. (Could you have an addiction to food?)

Travel was impossible. Leaving the comfort of my home exercise routine caused me waves of panic bordering on breakdown. Rather than exploring the sights wherever I landed, I’d devote hours to hunting down fitness centers or cycling through body-weight exercises in my hotel. 

Equally difficult? Relationships. It’s hard to spend quality time with anyone when you consider intimacy a threat to your gym schedule. While new dates were often initially impressed by my commitment, they quickly grew frustrated when I’d cancel plans or cut days and evenings short so as to save my energy for workouts.

I needed help, but I was afraid getting it would dampen the drive I had to workout and take away what had bolstered me, given my life structure, and made me feel important for nearly a decade. 

One weekend, doing yoga in my apartment, I kicked over a glass. It broke on my forehead and blood splattered on to the carpet. The wound was gushing. But I refused to seek medical help until I completed the full range of sun salutations. That’s when I knew I couldn’t avoid therapy any longer. I had become a danger to myself. I was afraid of what else my addiction to exercise would lead me to do.

Getting Help—Finally
I began seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist. I was terrified that she’d make me give up the gym entirely. But I was relieved when she told me that wasn’t the goal—our priority was to find a more balanced approach to exercise, which, eventually, we did.

Changing my habits was arduous. The first day I didn’t do cardio, I felt like my skin was crawling. But, over time, I realized that an off day here or there, a scaling back on intensity and time spent at the gym when I was tired or sick, made me feel stronger—and gave me more energy to engage in other activities outside the gym.

I got a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. I pursued other passions—writing, comedy, and spending much more time with family and friends. And along the way, I met someone who fell in love with me not just for my body but for my mind—enlightening me to the possibility that I was worth so much more than the miles I logged or the weight I could lift. (That I had more time in my day to spend with this person, due to my more reasonable exercise schedule, also helped open my eyes to this liberating realization.) (Check out these 20 Ways to Get Happy (Almost) Instantly!)

This isn’t to say that I’ve stopped stressing about the gym altogether, or that I never fall back on old habits. There are still days when I spend too much time on the treadmill only to realize what I was running from is still waiting for me when I get off. But my life today is filled with pursuits that bring me more satisfaction—and give me a greater sense of purpose—than any amount of calories burned or distance covered.

What You Need to Know
Up to 3 percent of the general population and 25 percent of people dealing with other addictions meet exercise addiction criteria, according to the National Institutes of Health. So what, exactly, are these exercise addiction criteria? Scientifically speaking, there are seven red flags:

1. Tolerance: Needing more and more physical activity to achieve an improvement in mood, sense of calm, or exercise high.
2. Withdrawal: Experiencing anxiety and irritability (and sometimes achiness or fatigue) on days where you can’t get to the gym.
3. Time: Devoting unusually large amounts of time to engaging in, planning, recovering from, or thinking about exercise.
4. Intention Effect: Planning to work out for a limited amount of time but repeatedly exceeding that limit.
5. Loss of Control: Being unable to temper the amount of time spent exercising and feeling as if it’s controlling your life.
6. Reduction in Other Activities: Canceling plans and losing interest in non-exercise related activities as working out most always takes precedence.
7. Continuance: Persisting in one’s workouts despite injury, illness, fatigue, or medical advice.

If you feel you meet these criteria, reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in behavioral addictions, obsessive compulsive habits, or body image issues. If you know someone you think might be suffering, tread lightly when confronting them (no one likes to be told they need help), but mention you’re concerned about their habits and offer support.

Though recovery from exercise addiction is a tricky process, there is hope for those who are suffering. It may take an immense amount of work—much of which is behavioral change (no easy task)—but trust me when I say you can get better (and you don’t even have to quit going to the gym)!

Katherine Schreiber is the author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration.

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