A not-so-healthy-addiction

Back during my exercise zeitgeist, many people congratulated me on my efforts. "Wow, you're so dedicated," they would gush. I said something non-committal, usually along the lines of "Mmmm." Inside, however, I cringed. This isn't fun, I wanted to say. It's not virtuous, and I'm not dedicated. How could I be "dedicated" to something I felt obligated to do? It's like saying I'm dedicated to breathing or peeing because I do both so regularly. And it would have been just as easy to stop those as it would have been to stop exercising.

So it was with great joy that I stumbled across the following post: A healthy addiction? Not for me. You know that scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally, where Meg Ryan does that "Yes! Yes! YES!!" in the restaurant? That's kind of what I was thinking when I read this, sans drama. And yes, you can have what I'm having if you read on or click the link.

It has been nearly 11 years since I had a drink or a drug but I still struggle with my exercise addiction. Actually, I’m lying. I don’t struggle with my exercise addiction. My therapist struggles with my exercise addiction. That’s the problem. Despite years of sobriety, my addict brain can still convince me that this addiction is better than that addiction. Sure, I look a heckuva lot better than a crack addict, but we are both addicts. Any addiction - to drugs, alcohol, food or behaviors - is toxic to me, my depression and bipolar.

I like to think that today I have a handle on my exercise addiction. Back in the days when I did triathlon and ran marathons I worked out six, sometimes seven days a week. Sometimes twice a day. I spent outrageous sums of money on bikes and shoes and a ridiculous amount of time training. Just like a meth addict, I surrounded myself with other exercise addicts. Except we were the healthy addicts. Yea, right.

And I guess that's what irritates me: exercise is seen as so essentially healthy (read: virtuous, dedicated, moral) that most people cannot comprehend that one can possibly exercise too much. Yet you can. You can also exercise for all the wrong reasons. You can become hooked on the endorphin rush, become dependent on the rivulets of sweat and the sweet stale stench of the locker room.

Which is why I so treasure this one comment I got from a co-worker as we were riding the elevator down- him to the lobby, me to the basement gym.

"Whatcha doing?" he asked.
"Oh, just going for a little workout," I replied.
"That doesn't sound like fun. I'm going to visit the National Portrait Gallery," he said.
I wanted to say "Thank you for your honesty," but I just smiled and said "Have a good time!"

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Cammy said...

This, basically, is my life right now. And I have heard people make such ignorant comments: "I wish I could be addicted to exercise!" Yeah. Why don't you try sacrificing your life to it for a day, a month, a year, a decade...
Thanks for bringing attention and insight to such an important issue.

Kristina said...

It's interesting (maybe only because I've been drinking wine tonight)... I have a good friend who every year, in the summer, does an Ironman-length triathalon. She spend countless hours a day exercising, and her weekends are consumed by the training involved. But once she has competed, she is DONE for about 6 months.
2 things here: #1. I do frequently envy her body's ability to run, swim and bike that much (my knees have given out and I don't like to swim as a work-out); but #2. I have NO desire these days to sacrifice that much of life (time with my husband) to training.
And I'm okay with that because I'm not sure that I would be healthy doing that.
But she IS healthy, and that's a huge difference.
And again, maybe she has her own demons. Don't we all?
But I love what the co-worker said!

Lisa said...

"I wish I could be addicted to exercise" is only marginally more socially acceptable than "I wish I could be anorexic." It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

Anonymous said...

Carrie, you said "you can exercise for all the wrong reasons"- and that made me want to ask, what would be the right reasons? For example, you listed the endorphin rush among the "wrong reasons". Since that's the only thing I've felt anything close to an "addiction" to (I've been a runner for many years), I of course can't see why it could possibly be wrong! On the other hand, the word "healthy" has become a word that makes me cringe, because everyone tosses it around as a basis for the way they eat, live, work, everything -but especially, eat. So I can't help thinking that exercising to "be healthy" is somehow a bit off. I run, and always have, because it makes me feel good, physically and mentally, and manages to keep me enough out of my minor depression that I don't need medication. I guess that's a good reason, for ME.

As for being "admired" for running, I hate that. I can't believe people actually say that to me and I always tell them it's nothing to admire- there are many good deeds people do that deserve admiration, and running is certainly not one of them, as it benefits only the self.


Carrie Arnold said...


No, I don't think enjoying the endorphin rush is the wrong reason, though I do think you can become addicted to that rush. By the "wrong" reason, I mean solely to control weight/shape/size, or to avoid feelings of guilt and depression if you don't exercise. There was an interesting study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders a little while ago that said those two factors were much more predictive of exercise addiction than time spent exercising.


I had a friend train for the Ironman as well, and I was a little jealous at the time because I had a broken ankle and was drooling at the thought to traverse a curb without assistance! But she also had a very healthy attitude towards it and most importantly, enjoyed it. She did it on a lark, just to see if she could, and didn't take it too seriously. As well, she also ate enough to fuel her body and never nattered on about losing weight, etc. Which kind of drives home the point from the IJED study.

Anonymous said...

Carrie - another great post that describes my life perfectly. I get such a rush from my exercise that any spare time that I have is spent in the gym or doing classes. Techniques that I use to stay in check is to try to stick to a set number of workouts per week, or try to do some less strenous exercise rather than pushing the heart rate to the max. Its tough, but I also know that my body is weary and aches when I have overdone it, and I know I will regret it when I am 65

A said...

Interesting -- my psychiatrist told us in education group (when I was in treatment) that this was something like the number one predictor for relapse -- even as much exercise as 4hrs/week raised the risk of relapse into ED. . . That really suprised me at the time but it does not suprise me now. I have been an excessive exerciser and even something like walking every day can become obsessive (which it is now) until if I do NOT have my daily walk I feel like crap.

I stay away from more intensive exercise (biking, swimming, etc.) things I used to do in spades because in the past it has become horribly obsessive. I don't even sit down -- only for meals and when I sleep/drive. I am standing as we speak.

Does exercise ever get easier? Does that obsession EVER leave?

Gillian said...

I've been reading your blog for months but this is the first time I've really felt compelled to comment.

I've noticed a huge difference in my attitude towards exercise depending on what type of movement it is. High-intensity, extended aerobic work does tend to trigger the (now) latent ED issues.

However, I can honestly say that heavy (REALLY heavy) strength training has helped me move beyond the disordered thoughts. Instead of feeling like I need to push myself to collapse, I do some deadlifts and then I feel like I should be beating my chest and roaring.

Lissy said...

what is the right amount of exercise? when is it healthy; when is it harmful? what's the right amount to eat? when did all my instincts get so far away from those nature planned? if i could listen to my body and this point, would it's natural instincts still be right?

Lily said...

AHHH! I totally saw that article, and as soon as I did, I went "YES...OMG YES!" Like Cammy said, it's SO irritating when people say things like: "Ooo, I wish I had an exercise addiction" or "I wish I worked out as much as you do!" No, really, you don't, because you couldn't go out until you do your ridiculous amount of exercise that day; you'd be anxious, constantly needing to move; you'd be left out of social events; you'd feel your body breaking down and in pain 24.7. It's along the lines of the idiots who've said to me: "Oh, I wish I could catch anorexia!" /rolls eyes

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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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