Around 3 years ago, I started a proper exercise regime for the first time. Previously, throughout sixth form, I killed myself for hours a week doing cardio and eating miniscule amounts. But I was so over that, and this time was different – this time, I was “healthy” because I was lifting weights and trying to become stronger, not skinnier.
And so it started. Walking 30 minutes from my uni accommodation to the gym. Doing 2 hours of strength training/HIIT cardio to build the body of my dreams. Walk 30 minutes home. Maybe do some yoga, maybe go on a light run. This was what I did every single day, 6x a week – there were a couple of instances when I realised that I hadn’t taken a rest day in about 3 weeks, but I took this as dedication rather than something that had turned much more dangerous. I refused to take a day off if I was ill and constantly bailed on plans in order to go to the gym, or get up at the crack of dawn to fit a workout in. If I had to miss a planned session my anxiety would be screaming on the inside, and I would consciously skip meals to make up for it as, after all, why do you need food if you’re not exercising it off? (Disclaimer – YOU DO). I pretty much made no friends in my first year at university, and I fully attribute it to my complete anxiety over exercise, food and my disordered body image, that formed a barrier between myself and everyone else I met.
People used to ask me how I did it. How on earth I found the motivation to go to the gym every single day. I would tell them that it was my “passion” or my “happy place”, but the truth was, I physically couldn’t not go – my life was structured around the gym, and come rain or shine, pain or injury, I would be there.
We learn about all sorts of addictions through school and the media. Drugs. Alcohol. Gambling. But how often do we hear about exercise addiction? Instead of being recognised as potentially dangerous, going to the gym 7 days a week has now become so normalised that we think nothing of it. In fact, we often glorify it, as it shows how dedicated that person is to their “health”. Exercise undeniably has amazing benefits: it increases the efficacy of our heart, releases feel-good endorphins, is an effective way at managing our weight and gives us more energy, both mentally and physically. However, when does healthy become harmful?
Exercise addiction is an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness or exercise, past the point of the potential health benefits exercise can give you. Criteria includes:
- Losing interest in things that were once important
- Prioritising exercise over other activities e.g. spending time with friends and family
- An increase in the duration or frequency of exercise sessions to the point of harm
- Severe withdrawal symptoms following exercise deprivation, such as anxiety, restlessness, depression, guilt, tension, discomfort, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and headaches.
- Exercising despite pain/injury
And despite it often being labelled a “healthy addiction”, unfortunately this is not the case at all. Excessive exercisers put themselves at a much higher risk of chronic disease (due to excess secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone), permanent injury, weak immune system, insomnia, and eating disorders, not to mention a really shitty social life.
Admittedly, this is something I am still working on. I absolutely LOVE training, however I now force myself to take multiple rest days, and if I’m not feeling it then I’m not feeling it, and I stay at home in bed instead. Missing a day, a week, a month of exercise will absolutely not cause a rapid decline in your health or a rapid incline in your weight.
Listen to your body, move intuitively, and remember it’s okay if the only movement you did today was walk to the fridge and back (I know I did!).