If nearly 80% of America struggles to meet the minimum weekly physical activity requirements, how is it that 3% of people get addicted to exercise? Research into the personality traits of exercise addicts has found that they tend to be more perfectionistic, narcissistic, less agreeable and more neurotic. (To the chagrin of my ego, I can certainly substantiate that with my own experience.) A deep lack of self-compassion coupled with low self-esteem and a preoccupation with one’s appearance may also fuel overdoing it at the gym. (Yup. I’ll verify that one as well.)
But personality and genetics aren’t the only reasons some people can’t stop working out. Environment is also a factor — especially cultural norms. Let’s face it: America glorifies fitness. (Never mind that this doesn’t translate to a more widespread adoption of healthy behavior.) Flip on The Biggest Loser, Google a few #fitspiration slogans or look at the ad campaigns of various gyms for proof. (Think: “[Popular Elite Gym] made me do it.”)
Sure, it’s great to encourage a healthy, regular amount of physical activity for the purposes of health. But all this adoration — some might argue fetishizing – of fitness tends to hit people prone to exercise addiction harder than the average consumer, rewarding and encouraging compulsions rather than calling the overexerciser’s attention to how their habit might be harming them. (“You ran how many miles and spent how much time at the gym? More power to you!” we’re apt to hear.)
More Is More
Yet another influence on an exercise addict’s behavior is the American love of excess. Alas, moderation is just not our forte. The hype surrounding extreme exercise programs (ultramarathons, bootcamps, Tough Mudders) on top of admonishments to constantly “push ourselves harder” exemplifies how our penchant for overdoing it has bled into the very activity that’s supposed to be great for our health. That the medical and sports science communities aren’t yet able to articulate a clear upper limit to exercise also fuels the false assumption that when it comes to physical activity, more is always better.
Complicating matters, about half of all exercise addicts have an eating disorder. Many struggling with pathological preoccupations about food use working out as an alternate way to purge calories. (You know that strong desire you get to take a walk after a big meal? Couple that with the panic of thinking your credit card has been stolen. That’s what it feels like to be plagued with both exercise addiction and an eating disorder. Not fun.) Not surprisingly, the risk factors for eating disorders are similar to those for exercise addiction, including perfectionism, neuroticism and low self-esteem.
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging exercise, rewarding people for doing it or being passionate about a sport or activity. Nor should using physical activity to shed pounds be a cause for concern unless someone’s already underweight. But those among us who are more susceptible to exercise addiction may misinterpret these endorsements as a green light to persist in an easy-to-mask form of self-abuse.
Recognizing Exercise Addiction When You See It
Though keeping your eyes open to the risk factors of exercise addiction may seem hardly worth doing when you think of all the people who never get to the gym, we do need to pay more attention to the influence of environment. The truth about exercise addiction is that it ultimately leads to decreased performance (thanks to multiple injuries and overtraining) and lower overall well-being, as well as impaired relationships. (In fact, perfectionism in any sport can itself hinder performance — not to mention emotional stability and mental health.)
Given the growth in nationwide gym memberships, easy access to fitness equipment and a surge in people taking up strenuous, injury-prone activities, the potential for exercise addiction to grow beyond 3% of the population is real. Those who might not have had outlets to express their obsessive bent towards fitness in previous years have more tools with which to do so today than ever before. This makes a sensitivity towards the factors that contribute to exercise addiction all the more important.
Fitness professionals can and should do their part to educate their clients about how to exercise responsibly and reasonably — namely, by encouraging exercisers to cue into their own body’s signals rather than push beyond them, take rest days as needed and refuel with adequate food and water. Personal trainers and group fitness instructors might also do well to take a deeper look at their own attitudes towards exercise, as they may be suffering from some of the symptoms of exercise addiction themselves. (The disorder’s prevalence is, unsurprisingly, higher among those who pursue sports and exercise for a living.)
If you think you or someone you know has a problem with overdoing physical activity, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional that specializes in behavioral addictions or eating disorders.