Exercise Addiction

This is an advice column written for www.stuff.co.nz published 31 October 2017

I have always been into exercising, but over the winter I have really become hooked. I go to the gym every morning and if I don’t get my 10,000 steps I walk around my house til I do. I am always checking the timetable and sometimes cancel plans with friends if they clash with my fitness schedule.  I’m feeling great – but is there a limit to my exercise addiction? What is the problem if I’m looking great?

Just because a little of something, like exercise, is good, it doesn’t necessarily mean more is better. If we do just enough exercise good things happen – energy, mood and vitality increases, immune system is strong and we lose fat and maintain or build muscle. When it starts take over your life and the idea of not being able to exercise makes you want to burst into tears, then you have a problem. Even if you do look amazing.

Being ‘healthy’ is not just about how you look. The WHO defines health as a ‘state of complete physical, mental and social well-being’ and it includes how your body and mind functions.

Exercise can be addictive and while what’s considered ‘excessive’ varies person to person, research points to 7 indicators:

  • Tolerance: increasing exercise volume to get the buzz you’re after
  • Withdrawal: missing an exercise session causes anxiety, depression or irritability
  • Lack of control: reducing exercise volume makes you feel out of control
  • Intention: you often do more exercise than what you intended
  • Time: excessive periods of time are spent preparing for and doing exercise
  • Reduction in other activities: because you’re too busy exercising
  • Continuance: continuing to exercise even though its causing physical or mental harm or pain

Aside from the obsessive nature of an exercise addiction, there’s also the physical implications of chronic overtraining to consider.

Again, overtraining is highly personal and goal-dependent – we’re all going to have different thresholds and reasons for doing high volumes of exercise, but there’s common signs that show you’re just not healthy.

  • Decreased muscle mass despite increased exercise: excessive exercise can cause hormonal changes leading to muscle loss and fat gain no matter how much cardio you do
  • Lowered immune system: chronic exercise often leads to signs your body isn’t coping with the increased workload – it’s in a catabolic state, breaking down and not repairing causing lowered immunity
  • Niggling injuries: inadequate rest and recovery between workouts compromises technique, strength and increases chances of injury.
  • Constant muscle soreness: indicates your recovery mechanism is compromised

This doesn’t mean we need to stop exercising – it just means we need a more moderate, balanced approach and to listen to our body. Consider:

  • Taking a rest day from intense exercise. This doesn’t mean lie on the couch, you can still be active – go for a walk, swim, stretch, do yoga or gentle activity to re-energise and encourage your rest and repair functions
  • Meditating or practice mindfulness techniques to help refocus
  • Geting a massage
  • Drinking lots of water and eat good quality fruit, vegetables, protein and healthy fats to give your body the nutrition it needs
  • Geting enough sleep. Physical repair generally happens between 10pm and 2am and psychological repair between 2am and 6am.

Don’t make exercise your life, live your life and make exercise a part of it.  Learn how much exercise your body needs to perform at its best.