Have you ever heard the old saying, “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing?”
Let me preface the following by saying this: When used moderately to maintain physical and mental health, and/or when used in conjunction with an appropriate amount of nourishment, exercise has a whole host of incredible benefits.
But in the case of exercise addiction, yes; too much of a good thing (exercise) can yield negative consequences.
Exercise addiction is something that impacts thousands of people, and can be conceptualized like other process and substance addictions. It’s not a formal clinical diagnosis, but rather a behavioral condition often rooted within other issues – such as distorted body image or eating disorders.
So how much exercise IS too much exercise? That can be difficult to answer without knowing the unique circumstances surrounding each individual, but here are some more universal signs to look out for:
1). Missing a workout makes you/them irritable, anxious or depressed – For instance, if you notice someone or yourself getting clearly agitated or uncomfortable after missing a workout, even after a long string of consecutive days, it could be a warning sign.
2). You/they work out when sick, injured or exhausted – It is important to listen to your bodily cues. Those who have an addiction to exercise push themselves through a pulled muscle, the flu or even a stress fracture, failing to rest when it’s clearly needed.
3). Exercise becomes a way to “escape”– The primary goal is no longer balancing the mind or reducing stress. Exercise becomes a way to withdraw from certain life situations and the emotions that are brought up because of them. Clinical interventions such as talk therapy and/or expressive therapy are safe and adaptive ways to address uncomfortable emotions.
4). Workouts start to impact relationships – When you notice you/they are spending more time training than with a spouse, or opt to stay at the gym instead of attending get togethers with friends, it could be indicative of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. As with any eating disorder, exercise addicts tend to withdraw and isolate from their friends and family in order to continue unhealthy behaviors.
5). Other priorities suffer: In a similar vein, someone frequently misses a work deadline or child’s soccer game; again, viewing exercise as more significant/important in the grand scheme of things.
6). Happiness is re-defined: Mood or happiness are solely dictated by the outcome of the latest workout, how one’s body looks that given day or how “fit” they currently perceive themselves.
7). You/they continually extend workouts: It is quite common for someone struggling with an exercise addiction to add on workouts wherever they can, whether it’s extra reps on the bench press or running home after a hard soccer practice.
8). You/they excessively work out: Some marathon training programs call for “two-a-days” to build mileage, but consistently doing this – without any specific training goal and without being monitored by a medical professional – could result in further mental and physical ramifications.
9) Exercise loses the element of play and fun: Dr. George Sheehan, author of Running & Being, says it perfectly, “the things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun – not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is.” Exercise needs to be fun, not viewed as a chore or “must-do” when you simply don’t feel up to it.
It’s important to note these red flags don’t necessarily mean someone is addicted to exercise; rather this is an outline of universal symptoms that CAN be indicators that a greater problem exists. If the above statements describe your experience, please consider discussing your concern with a professional.
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Emily Slager, M.Ed., LMHC, is director of Walden’s Hickory Drive Clinic. She is responsible for providing clinical, administrative and fiscal oversight as well as development for the clinic. Previously, she was director of residential, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for adolescents and adults at Walden’s Waltham location. In that role, she oversaw all aspects of these programs including administrative, fiscal and clinical management. Formerly, she was a clinician on Walden’s inpatient eating disorder and psychiatric units. Ms. Slager earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College. Her professional interests include the development of eating disorders in athletes and in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.