The Slippery Slope of Exercise Addiction

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What Does It Mean to be Addicted to Exercise, and What are the Symptoms? 

When someone is addicted to exercise, the planning or thinking about exercise takes up major mental space. The mental planning and actual exercise might interfere with relationships, social or professional interests or needs; it could cause stress fractures or other injuries; and it likely interferes with sleep and other bodily processes and needs like sufficient nutrition and eating. Also, when one is addicted to exercise, there’s a lack of communication from the physical and emotional body and its deeper needs – despite how the addiction or craving for exercise might be perceived (more, more, more!).

What Causes Exercise Addiction? 

While we are creatures of comfort, habit and connection, sometimes comfort and connection mean creating habits that numb us to feeling discomfort. In other words, instead of running toward and moving through big, uncomfortable feelings or facing confrontation, we might quite literally run away from distress. And, to many people, avoiding distress initially feels better than facing and feeling it! Because exercise produces the feel-good chemicals of endorphins, the pleasurable effects of exercise feed the compulsive exercise cycle.

Is Exercise Addiction Over- or Under-Diagnosed? Why? 

As someone who has taught exercise and movement as well as helped people to come home to their bodies with more mindfulness and sustainability through psychotherapy, I firmly believe exercise addiction is under-diagnosed. Whether addictive exercise is induced by fitness/athletic or body image pursuits, our culture praises an external presentation of fitness and health to a degree that only supports a one-dimensional image of how a body looks (or “should” look). While people might start exercising for different reasons (athletic, weight loss, medical), the slippery slope of addiction develops when the exercise high offers repetitive relief from underlying stressors or trauma. Too much exercise easily becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism as one’s nervous system responses bounce back-and-forth from fight/flight and shutdown — This turns into addiction instead of a healthy and moderately-practiced form of grounded, energy-giving self-care.

On Getting Support for Exercise Addiction 

It’s important to get support and become aware of one’s own unique history of traumas, compulsive behaviors or tendencies, perfectionistic personality or exercise-related injury, in an effort to seek support from trained professionals who offer a sustainable, trauma-informed approach to physical and psychological care. A support network could include medical professionals, mental health clinicians, physical therapists, experienced personal trainers and yoga teachers, to name a few. Quick or radical fixes — even from the medical to the spiritual communities — should be a red flag because any approach that promises a guaranteed, fast result or rigid regime is yet another slippery slope to addictive practices. From a trauma-informed, somatic psychology perspective, the body holds the wisdom for its deeper hungers and even a roadmap to healing, but it takes gaining the courage to seek qualified support and slow down enough to begin listening and make room for what the body has to say.

If you’re curious about your relationship to exercise, your body image and/or food, and if you want to see if we might good fit to help you find freedom from overdoing these things, I’d be happy to talk. Contact me here for a 15-minute phone consultation.