Walking the line between health and obsession

This is a question I keep asking myself: where do I draw the line? At what point are certain behaviors healthy (such as exercise, or being careful about what you eat), and when do they tip over the line into obsession and disaster?

Motivation may be a part of it. Are you doing this because you want to, or because you have to? How would you feel if you stopped? But then, we have all sorts of wonderful ways of deluding ourselves that it's often hard for a person to understand the situation from a neutral viewpoint.

Case in point: a man has been on a 30-year running streak. In the past 30 years, he has not missed a single day of running. Period. Ever.

Writes his daughter in a Wall Street Journal article (excerpted in the story above):

When he travels overseas, my dad, who is 66, plans layovers so he can get in a couple miles around the concourse, lest he miss a day to the time-zone shift. During blizzards, he wraps his feet in plastic bags, pulls galoshes over his sneakers and screws in cleats for traction. Then he waits for a snowplow to pass his front door, so he can follow in the freshly cleared path.

My father, Dr. Harvey B. Simon, practices internal medicine in Boston and teaches at Harvard Medical School. Rationally, he knows that running 10 miles a day, every day, for three decades is not great for his ever-more-creaky body. He’d never advise his patients to do it. In fact, he’s written several health and fitness books stressing the virtue of moderation in exercise. And yet….

He’s run with broken toes and the flu and a nasty infected heel and near-crippling back spasms. He goes out before dawn in every kind of weather; he’s become such a fixture in the neighborhood that a couple times when a freak thunderstorm has rolled in, strangers have driven out to find him. They didn’t know his name. They just knew he’d be out there, plodding away, and figured he might appreciate a ride home.

My thinking? This guy has clearly crossed the line. I think he is suffering from an exercise compulsion. The problem is that (if you glance at some of the comments) the voices of people telling this guy to stop and reevaluate--or even the frank "I don't think this is healthy or benefiting you whatsoever"--are drowned out by a "how fantastic that someone at his age is so fit!"

When I was exercising for crazy hours, and even now as I try and figure out what's a healthy amount of exercise and what's not, I was uniformly praised at my "dedication" to fitness. At being a "fixture" in the gym. No one asked, "Don't you have anything better to do?" No one asked, "Do you like all of this exercise?" No one asked, "Are you in pain?" Nope. It was all back-patting and high-praising and I could justify this to myself. How could my behaviors be harmful, I thought, if they're being praised? If they are almost normal? Plenty of other people I knew spent hours in the gym each day- which might not have been healthy, either, but again the praises kept coming.

Our culture isn't helping this. No one raised an eyebrow at my bizarre eating habits when I first got sick or when I relapsed. Or when some of my co-workers have done similar things (and I'm not just referring to the Big Fat Loser contest). I might not say anything because it's none of my business, nor am I in a position to do so, nor can I be entirely sure of the whole situation, but I do NOT praise potentially unhealthy behavior.

Defining "health" and even "obsession" isn't going to be cut and dry, a sort of universal for all of humanity. But having some sort of grip on when you've passed the tipping point could benefit everyone. Our society has passed that point a long time ago- just look at the Holiday Hypocrisy, those interminable stories about how to avoid "packing on" the single pound that most people gain. That's an obsession, and I don't think it's healthy.

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Anonymous said...

Carrie - I loved this post, I ask myself the same questions every day. Am I eating this because its healthy or because I actually like the taste? Do I enjoy this exercise or is it just to burn calories? Am I deluding myself that by being healthier I will be happier? I would love to find that line between healthy and obsessive...

Anonymous said...

I think that that was the biggest problem that I had. On Saturday mornings when the rest of my friends were tailgating for a big game, I was at the gym. And I constantly heard: "You're going to live a lot longer than those other kids." Really? But like so many other people, I can't seem to figure out that line between healthy and obsessive...that line really is just "too thin."

fighting_forever said...

I've wondered the same thing on many occasions. There's no magic number of minutes on a treadmill where you go from "healthy exercise" to "overdoing it."

I think my problem was that what I was doing was perfectly logical when I started. If you eat more one day and then go to the gym the next, there's nothing wrong with doing a couple of extra minutes to make up for the day before. It makes perfect sense. There's no day when you go from being a perfectly normal person doing normal exercise to being someone disordered who exercises compulsively as a compensatory behaviour.

Everything's gradual which makes the problem so hard to see when it starts.

Kim said...

Great post. I ask myself these questions quite often. I can very easily cross the line with "eating healthy" and exercising. I'm always wondering, "Do I REALLY like yoga?" or "Do I REALLY like fruit that much?" It's hard to find out what I want when society is constantly praising discipline and "longevity-promoting behaviors." I guess there's no "right" answer. Some days, a walk feels like a nice walk; some days, it feels like an obligation. Maybe what matters is being conscious of intention.

A said...

the funny thing with an ED is that it can start to get very confusing. . .

Do I like this meal because it is "safe" or because I honestly like it -- how to differentiate?

Do I actually ALWAYS like the flavours with less calories -- or are there times when I enjoy that 20 calorie difference.

Do I "hate" this food because it is disgusting to my ED, or simply a taste I do not prefer.

These are actually questions I have in recovery that are not black and white. I actually have no idea how ti distinguish my preferences from my ED symptomaolgy (sp!)

I think it shows how deep these disorders run in altering perception/behaviour


Anonymous said...

Anonymous Fan: I believe that although there may be some general guidelines that can indicate things i.e. up to this point ____ would be within the realm of normal verses this point & beyond ___ indicate a problem, compulsiveness, disordered, etc. However, I tend to believe that it is a very personal fine line. What is normal for me might be considered compulsive for you or vice versa. It's the general guidelines that tend to promote some people seeking perhaps compulsively that "normal" ideal. I hope that you find the synthesis for you!

Carrie Arnold said...


But really, exercising more because you ate more is really a form of purging. A socially acceptable (and even admired!) form of purging, but that's what it is.

I don't have all of the answers to what's healthy vs. what's obsessive, even for me. Maybe especially for me. And our current climate just makes it that much more difficult. Grrr.

Crimson Wife said...

It *IS* hard, and for me personally it often takes a 3rd party to point it out. I've been struggling with these issues so long (two decades now) that I've become very good at self-rationalization. I can't trust the voice inside my head so I need someone else to be the "voice of reason".

fighting_forever said...

"But really, exercising more because you ate more is really a form of purging. A socially acceptable (and even admired!) form of purging, but that's what it is."

I'm not denying that. I had a form of bulimia where I used exercise to purge. My point was that it seems normal at first and, yes, admired. If I were to say, "I ate a bit more than I should yesterday so I'm going to the gym today," people would go, "Good for you," and it all seemed sensible. The problem is, it's a gradual slope from there into disordered behaviour. I never noticed the transition that left me at a stage where I'd think, "I ate half the contents of the kitchen last night, I'd better spend three hours in the gym this morning and not eat anything all day."

One end of the scale is sensible and admired, the other end is obviously disordered. I don't think there's a fine line between them. I think there's a very broad grey area and no markers to let you know when you've passed beyond normal behaviour.

Laura Collins said...

In some ways, I think that society has always been the arbiter of these things. We're social animals - we're pack animals.

We are programmed to respond to the messages around us - and it takes great insight - or, ironically something wrong with our connection with others - to stop listening to others.

And we live in a society without upper boundaries on "good" for many things: achievement, ambition, appearance consciousness, greed, even being "good."

Surrounding ourselves with healthy, grounded, well-rounded people is probably the best aid to sanity, right?

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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