In seeking work-life balance, many of us fight hard to carve out sufficient time for exercise. It keeps us fit, reduces stress, and can offer – depending on the activity – time to ourselves or social time with friends. But for some people, exercise becomes excessive – a form of addiction. Exercise psychologist Heather Hausenblas has interviewed people who sign up at three gyms so no fitness trainer will be aware of the extent of their overindulgence.
"Even something that is good for you like exercise, if taken to extremes, will be unhealthy. We always need to find balance – whether eating, watching TV, or exercising," she says in an interview.
Prof. Hausenblas, a native of Sudbury, studied at McMaster University and the University of Western Ontario before taking a post in Florida, where she now teaches at Jacksonville University and has picked up a bit of a Southern U.S. drawl. She was studying how to motivate people to exercise when a graduate student suggested they may learn from looking at people on the other end of the continuum, and the result has been alerting herself and others to the problems of overdoing your exercise, notably in a new book, The Truth About Exercise Addiction, co-authored with writer Katherine Schreiber.
A major complication is that exercise is socially encouraged – viewed widely as a good thing. Even exercising hard and long is part of the culture, with gym posters spurring members to go past the pain-and-endurance threshold – no pain, no gain.
But exercise addicts can hurt themselves physically as they push too hard and then, all too often, find it difficult to pull back when a doctor demands a period of rest or a more restrained pace. It can start with sprains, strains and muscle tears, and move on to breaking bones, herniated disks, tendinitis, and fasciitis. Even the internal organs can be affected. The book notes one study found hardening of heart cells among lifelong endurance athletes that could precipitate sudden cardiac arrest.
Other research shows that moderate runners – anywhere from 1.5 to 15 miles a week – benefit from an estimated 19-per-cent reduction in mortality rates but those who consistently surpass 25 miles weekly have a risk of death comparable to those who don't exercise at all. "Your body can only take so much," Prof. Hausenblas says in the interview.
Psychological turmoil can occur as exercise addicts find themselves haunted from morning to night by thoughts about getting sufficient exercise in that day. When unable to exercise, they can experience guilt, irritation and even depression, rage, or panic. Socially, they can become reclusive, giving up on outside activities that threaten their main goal. Invitations are turned down and last-minute cancellations become common on a day where exercise has to be fit in.
This is not a huge problem in numbers, probably affecting just 0.3 per cent of the population. It's seen more in body building, running, triathlons, and other endurance sports, particularly when individuals can train on their own so aren't reliant on other people's schedules. Addicts tend to be younger, commonly in their twenties to forties. They are likely to be conscientious and methodical. Extroverts and moody folks are also more likely to be afflicted.
She lists seven symptoms to be alert to, noting that having just three can be a sign of addiction:
Tolerance: You need to increase the time spent or the intensity to achieve the originally desired effect.
Withdrawal: If you can't get to the gym or out for your daily run you will be frustrated, if not angry, and lethargic, as fatigue sets in. You may only overcome these feelings by exercising.
Intention: You intend to restrict your workout to a certain period of time but push beyond that boundary. For example, you promise yourself you will work out on the elliptical for 30 nminutes but go on for an hour.
Loss of control: You can't control your thoughts and behaviour, as everything circles around exercise. "Even with an awareness that his regimen may be getting a bit out of hand, the exercise addict repeatedly finds himself unable to stop or cut back. More reps are added and more calories clamour to be burned, even if he wants nothing more than to go home, take a day off, or do something sedentary," they write in the book.
Time: A large chunk of your day gets swallowed up by exercise. Vacations will even revolve around fitness.
Conflict: Non-fitness activities fall by the wayside since they conflict with exercise. Things that used to bring joy, like drinks with a friend, are now a nuisance.
Continuance: When you incur an injury, you continue your preferred routine, even going against doctor's orders to take a break.
Prof. Hausenblas has always loved exercise – rowing and playing badminton while at McMaster in her undergraduate years. These days, with three sons, she runs before they are up every morning with friends, combining exercise and socializing. "I don't want to go to the gym in the evening and leave the kids or get a babysitter. I see people who do that. It's a matter of balance and values. I put a lot of value in exercise but I fit it in so doesn't take away from what else I value," she says.
That's the attitude she hopes others will adopt, avoiding exercise addiction.