Fitness First?

Statistics claim that 1 per cent of the population is affected by an addiction to exercise. But when does a healthy pursuit become an addiction? A juggernaut that starts as a way of coping with life and ends up taking it over?

The term originated with Dr William Glasser after he studied long-distance runners in 1976. Glasser noted that many of them felt depressed when they couldn’t train.  He concluded that there’s such a thing as a positive and a negative addiction. A positive one involves a love of the activity, which is then scheduled around daily life and results in positive physical and psychological benefits.  A negative addiction however, is one which rules you – disrupting normal life, work and relationships, as well as even physical health.

Negative addictions can be subdivided further, into primary and secondary exercise dependency (ED). Secondary EDs are the most common and are often accompanied by eating disorders.  They’re fuelled by the desire to be in control, to change or restrict one’s body shape.

Primary EDs are driven instead by the exercise ‘high’.  What happens is this –  vigorous exercise kick-starts our nervous system. This not only increases our levels of mood-improving ‘happy hormones’ (or endorphins), but also releases molecules that shut down pain signals reaching the brain. The result is a natural high.

But, just like with drugs, our body needs more and more of such hormones  – and thus more and more exercise, to get the same kick.

Debate is still raging as to whether or not ED qualifies as a ‘primary’ addiction, rather than simply a feature of another disorder, such as bulimia. Some researchers argue that exercise dependence occurs only in the presence of an eating disorder. However, multiple studies have found the existence of exercise dependence in individuals who did not suffer from poor body image or disordered eating habits. This could suggest it is a primary disorder that results in exercising for its own sake.

Warning signs may include the following;

  1. Always working out alone, isolated from others.
  2. Always following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  3. Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly.
  4. Fixation on weight loss or calories burned.
  5. Exercising when sick or injured.
  6. Exercising to the point of pain and beyond.
  7. Skipping work, class, or social plans for workouts.

If you feel distressed at the thought of not being able to exercise every day, or unsure how you would manage your feelings without exercising, it may be time to seek help.

4 thoughts on “Fitness First?

  1. As an aside, isn’t it interesting how addictions are defined with the expression “alone”! Above, the first criterion for Exercise Disorder is “Always working out alone, isolated from others”; in eating disorders, mealtimes – or the times just after eating – are taken alone; one of the criterion for alcoholism is the increasing incidence of drinking alone; workaholism involves staying behind after colleagues have left and NOT going home to family / friends / flatmates; etc.

    And then there’s God’s way of doing things: John 17 –

  2. Absolutely. In my own experience too, community has been one of the most vital (albeit frightening) aspects of recovery. In part, it’s a way of being drawn out of your own world and into the lives of others, rather than dragging others down to where you are. Also, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, the word of encouragement from a brother is stronger than the word from my own heart.

  3. Another very interesting post. I am very unfit, and am just beginning to really enjoy exercise. I would love to get into the habit of it, so that it becomes easier to incorporate into my day–but I suppose one has to be careful not to get addicted to the endorphins.
    I think your blog is both very honest, and very helpful. I’ve never had anorexia, but have comfort eaten, which is the opposite response to uncomfortable emotions. I am now belatedly realizing that the best way to deal with uncomfortable emotions is to deal with them–through prayer, thinking, and maybe behavioural change, rather than seeking a displacement activity.

  4. Thanks Anita. A lot of recovering anorexics struggle with binge-eating (myself included) and I wonder if, even though they’re opposite strategies, they’re both trying to achieve similar things – whether comfort or displacing uncomfortable emotions or as a way of keeping others at a distance. That’s why you’re right to point to the heart issues underlying our behaviours – and to real recovery, which means prayer and thinking as well as behaviour. Otherwise I can regain weight and look much better, but still be using food as a way of managing emotions.

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