Do you insist on rising at five to run each morning, even when your back is aching, black ice coats the streets, and your wife beseeches you to stay in bed? Do you only feel good when you’re training for triathlons? Is eating merely a way to replenish for the next race? Then you, my Spandex-clad friend, may have an exercise addiction.
For the vast majority of us, exercise is a good that we don’t get enough of. But a small minority of perfectionist athletes are compulsive exercisers. Some call them exercise addicts, or obsessives, or “obligatory athletes.” As many as 10% of high-performance runners, and possibly an equal number of body builders, have an exercise addiction. Thirty minutes a day of moderate physical activity is enough to help prevent things like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Exercise addicts tend to think that a two-hour run makes them four times as healthy. It doesn’t work that way. Too much exercise can lead to injuries, exhaustion, depression, and suicide. It can also cause lasting physical harm.
Extreme exercisers have an extreme need for control
You can distinguish healthy enthusiasts from exercise addicts by the following trait, says Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England: “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives round their exercise.”
Excessive exercise, like extreme diets, attracts people who feel an extreme need for control in their lives. Like weight reduction, improved athletic performance is readily observable, Cockerill says.
Treatment for exercise addiction, says the therapists, involves getting the athletes to see they have a problem and that change is necessary. “You have to give them a sense of worth. Maybe they never had a good self-concept. Is it something that happened in childhood? Maybe there’s addiction in the family,” Rhea says.
Some runners who run into trouble start by becoming addicted to “runner’s high,” a feeling of elation caused by the release of hormones. Yates says, “There’s a change in the psyche — they talk about almost out-of-body experiences, feeling as if they can change the world.” But eventually, the adrenal gland burns out and they crash. “What was once gratifying becomes painful and controlling. It becomes a bad thing, but they can’t get out of it.”