Exercise: Am I an Addict?

I recently came across These Girls Do's post on Exercise Addiction vs Dedication (<<< go read it!) and it really made me think. I commented on the post itself but then couldn't stop musing on about it. It linked in to a lot of my own confusion over the term, and a lot of the conflict I experience with other people about exercise too.

Exercise Addiction is not currently a recognised disorder; and for good reason. Its definition spectrum is just too vague and would apply to a huge number of entirely healthy, some would say extremely healthy, athletes. So when does exercise become an issue? Is it automatically a problem if something is addictive? Our environment is full of things which could qualify as addictions- food types, exercise, even people. When does it become a bad thing?

It is suggested that exercise has to be 'to a damaging degree'; 'physically damaging'; or 'excessive to qualify as an exercise addiction. This to me is so vague that it is flinch-worthy. Technically all exercise does micro physical-damage. Do you mean 'painful', as in you are injured but continue? 'Painful', as in your muscles hurt? 'Painful', as in you're struggling uphill and your heart is racing but you know it'll be worth it?

This is mentioned in pairing with not having 'adequate' rest. However, what is 'adequate' differs dramatically by person, and by activity variance. I don't take a lot of rest days, but the exercise I do is extremely varied in both content and intensity, so I'm rarely straining the same things. Excessive is not a single definition, but again highly variable by person. Friends who don’t exercise, in particular, say I’m obsessed because I work out 5-6 times a week. They do not factor in that I have slowly worked up to that, and because they see exercise as punishment, they do not understand the happiness I get from it.

This line of thought also exposes a dangerous assumption- many articles discussing the phenomenon seem to find it difficult to justify a lot of exercise done by a non-elite athlete. Is it not justifiable if you're not that good? What if you're training to be better? In fact, what if you aren't training for a single dang thing? I'd argue that there is nothing wrong with exercise for the joy of it.

Other potential 'problem' signs in the literature include experiencing exercise withdrawal, or getting a "buzz"from exercise. Now, I don't know a single athlete who doesn't miss training when injured. But its not just that they miss the training. When I am out of exercise I miss moving, I miss my friends, I miss the outdoors. I feel sluggish and crappy. Yes, yes I do get a high from exercise but I get that when its the only session I've done a week or when I've done one every day. Do we suggest its an addiction because of that feeling? Is seeking something that makes you feel that good really a bad thing? The same could apply to your job when you've pulled off an epic presentation, to you boyfriend or girlfriend when you kiss, to your friends when they've made you laugh so hard your abs hurt.

Another behaviour included on the Exercise Addiction Inventory (Terry, Szabo & Griffiths, 2004) is exercise being used as a way to change mood. If that's wrong I'm not sure I want to be right, there is nothing in the world like a great run after a shitty day, or boxing it out at Muay Thai.

Having fun in all 3 cases
Experts do comment that exercise can be a "positive addiction" - defined as having a healthy adaptation to the barriers to exercise: commitments to work, family, relationships etc which compete for time. I would argue this is where I am. But this does mean I tick another box on that peskyinventory;  Terry, Szabo & Griffiths (2004) say exercise is a problem when it interferes with your relationships. When is 'interference' happening? Its hard to say. Certainly, as I've suggested, I do experience tension in some relationships because of it. Almost invariably in relationships with people who don't work out.

I know some of my friends think my exercise is troublesome if it means I can't/won't stay out late, or 'have' to leave shopping to go to the climbing wall. The thing is, honestly, exercise is part of my fun. There are times where I would rather exercise than go shopping, or go see that film. Not because I feel compulsively about it, because I genuinely will have a great time. Similarly, I’m going to Italy in the summer and am already planning on doing the vertical km course. Some people will say, “its a holiday, stop working out”, but I genuinely WANT to do it. To me a great holiday would include exercise, its my down time. This conflict will not make me lose these people as friends, but it does loosen the bonds between us, and strengthen the bonds between me and people who Get It. As These Girls Do pointed out, “If we judged excessive exercise by the general population, anyone training for anything would be counted as addicted”. We can't judge addiction by the majority here.

Perhaps the only section of the literature that I can understand is the differentiation between exercise addiction through addict-type properties and through compulsion. Compulsive exercisers don't get any joy from it. Its a chore and relentless. I don't think it is healthy to be like that. Exercise takes up a huge part of my week. At the start I tried to fit exercise in because it was healthy, now I have it narrowed down to sports and classes which I love. I wouldn't dedicate 6 hours of my week to something I didn't love.

It is suggested that exercise addictions show a high comorbidity with eating disorders. If anything in this case I'd list the exercise addiction as a feature of the ED- another purging behaviour. This is obviously dangerous. That said, I have seen people for whom a sport helped them get out of their disordered eating. The other situation where I wholeheartedly believe exercise dependence could be dangerous is if someone continues to exercise through trauma or medical conditions. That said, I've exercised through injury. Bet you have too.

I can be very touchy about exercise commentary. I fullheartedly believe I have no issues with exercise and that my exercise is healthy and not over the top. I have trained up to this, I love all of it. It can make me bristle when people question it. Sitting on the sofa does damage too. Shows on TV and sugar filled foods are addictive too. Yet I'm not allowed to pass comment on that. It can also make me sad when people react to my running up a hill with, "Urgh, why do that to yourself?!", when to them did the joy of movement become a punishing chore?

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Sorry for the massive, slightly tangent- filled post.

Where would you draw the line between addiction and healthy habit?

Is your exercise addiction a healthy one?

8 Comments:

  1. I love this post - it sums up so many of my own conflicting thoughts on priorities of exercise... Basically summed up in "I wouldn't dedicate 6 hours of my week to something I didn't love." — Whatever my reasons for starting were, I am doing what I do now because I enjoy it, because it's my reward at the end of a long work day. It's a social thing & I'd prefer a thousand times over to go and chuck some heavy stuff around and have a laugh with a couple of like minded people in a gym on a friday night, than to sit in a crowded bar while drinking sugary things & having to yell to make phatic conversation with people you don't have a lot in common with... Phew.

    I had a day off work a few weeks back & got up earlier than I would do for work, in order to go for a swim & take myself bouldering. I went for a run too, and truly had a really feel-good day off. But I realise that's not everyones cup of tea, but like you said, why aren't we allowed to question other people's choices of bed & netflix, when they seem to have some unwritten 'right' to act like we're the crazy ones...?

    To answer the question of addiction - I think I've crossed the line before. I've made wrong decisions when prioritising relationships or work, or exercising when actually a rest would have done me more good... And I'll probably make the wrong decisions again in the future, I won't deny that. But I think the fact I realise this, and the fact I'm doing my best to address this balance, both in exercise and other aspects of fitness in my life (food etc...) hopefully means that I lean more to the habit side of the line than the addiction side...!

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    1. I think definitely I agree with what you added- being aware of sometimes falling out of balance either way is part of how you know youre healthy!

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  2. So I have SO MANY THOUGHTS on this and I don't even know where to start. My post was a massive brain dump and you've explored so many other options I didn't even start to get into. Especially like your compulsion/addiction separation and I defy anyone who is vaguely into exercise to say that they have always always listened to every single niggle.

    (Sorry, this isn't actually a very useful comment but I just wanted to get something down as I know how important it is to us both)

    On a side note - I'm currently in the middle of a post linked to your (and Naomi's) comments about interactions with others. If I was a smoker trying to quit (I'm not, so hypothetically) and therefore doing all I could to stop, avoiding tempting situations etc, people would ALWAYS encourage me. However, if I say 'no, sorry I can't come to the pub as I've got track' or 'no, I don't want a piece of cake for the 500th time you have asked' do I get told I am being boring, need to lighten up, live a little, or that 'once can't hurt'. AAAAAARGH.

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    1. Ooh I have many more thoughts on that too! I think part of it is perceived judgement- that if you say no to the cake or beer or the night out, or even if you make time to exercise, you may be judging them, or that they are judging themselves about it too. Making you fail makes them feel better.

      People find all sorts of creative reasons not to exercise ('running is bad for you' 'i don't have time') and its bad for their cognitive dissonance if you prove them wrong!

      Also for the vast majority of the population these behaviours seem unusual, therefore 'bad'. They have the complicit acceptance of a majority for all of the habits that may be contributing badly to their life, they get to treat you as a weird outlier. Crowd/group dynamics are insane, which is why it can sometimes feel so hard to say, 'y'know what? I don't want your cake'.

      Its itneresting that this is another area where people find it socially acceptable to pressure others, "aww come on, just one wee bit, just a little, dont be boring"- that isnt acceptable if it were meat to a vegetarian, that wouldnt even be acceptable if you were talking about sex, why is it okay about unhealthy food (for a great consent analogy here, which is about sexual consent but totally applies here, see the tea metaphor: http://rockstardinosaurpirateprincess.com/2015/03/02/consent-not-actually-that-complicated/)?!?

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    2. Definitely enjoying reading this discussion and agree wholeheartedly. Another thing that happens to me is when I prioritize running/fitness/healthy eating at work and with work travel, and am almost "bullied" a bit that I'm not being a team player, I'm not being fun. But starting my day with a run to explore a new city makes me feel amazing and alive, but partying into the wee hours and being hungover at work the next day...well, it doesn't.

      Don't get me wrong, I still like to imbibe occasionally, but let ME decide what works for me.

      I loved this post because even within a group of running friends, there are a lot of opinions about the "correct" number of rest days and how much is too much- I know my body and i know when I get out of balance. One cannot impose what works for that person onto anyone else.

      And like I wrote on twitter, I especially like the part about how "its not justifiable if you're not that good". I want to get better and for me that seems to be higher mileage- just because I'm not "fast" doesn't mean I don't want to work hard to try to become a little faster!

      I don't think it helps that I write a blog where I post all my workouts for people to judge....How do you handle that part of all this?

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    3. Yes! Which is so odd as well, why is it fun to jeapordise your health? Jeez, its the drugs argument all over again but with alcohol.

      I dont get why other people CARE so much. Ive been known to pretend to drink (water with lime or orange slices and a straw will pass as any clear drink) just so people get off my case!

      I have a strange interaction with the blog- very few people I know in real life read it. Most of the people that do are also exercisers or are very close friends. The oddest interaction I have is with my family. Sometimes I think they actively don't believe I exercise as often as I say I do!

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  3. A well-written and thought-provoking post! A lot of people I know think I'm crazy for setting my alarm at 5.15am to work out before work. But as I see it, everyone has different priorities. You make time for what you care about. Making time for something that's important to you isn't a sign of an addiction.
    However, alarm bells should definitely start ringing if someone is overwhelmed by guilt if they miss a training session, or continue to exercise compulsively despite it not bringing them any enjoyment.

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    1. Thank you Steph! Absolutely its a priority for me and for you too I see. I don't see how that makes it bad.

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