Gym Addiction: How Healthy Can Become Harmful

I’m standing in a packed gym at the local university, about to pick up a bar bell to swing over my head. I take a quick glance in the mirror and realize I’m unhappy with myself.

There are dozens of women running their guts out on treadmills, men grunting under the intense weight they have resting on their shoulders, people pushing more weight then they even weigh, it’s not a place that you can show weakness. I put my focus back on the weights and tell myself, I NEED to hit my goal for the day, 90 minutes of weight training before I can go home and rest. But the self-hatred keeps coming. This is probably partly because my shoulder is killing me, but I can’t admit this gym related injury to myself: taking the day off to heal would eat into my gym time. But mostly, it’s probably because I’m exhausted. I’ve already been to a 60 minute spin class earlier this morning, worked out the past three weeks in a row and had to take on a couple extra hours at work. But it doesn’t matter: I had to come to the gym tonight.

Why? Because I’m addicted to going to the gym. I’m addicted to the pump, the endorphins, the feeling of becoming bigger, better and stronger. I set myself extreme fitness goals that I NEED to meet in order to even feel remotely good about myself. And honestly I don’t think I know the difference between normal and excessive exercise levels anymore.

At my worst (if I’m being honest this was only a few months ago) I exercised at least twice a day, seven days a week and let nothing get in the way of that. I gave up so many other things, going out for dinner with friends, spending time with my family and even sleep, just so I could fit in my two-hour gym session. I even started to become regularly ill, as my immune system couldn’t keep up with this lack of rest. I was grumpy. If I got to the gym and everything I wanted to do, needed to do, was already taken by someone else, I was emotional. I would break down and cry if I didn’t feel like I pushed myself enough or  missed going to the gym that day.

But most importantly: I am NOT alone. According to a recent study, 42% of gym goers are at risk of developing an exercise addiction – with men and women equally affected. It’s not surprising, seeing as how much the fitness industry online is booming right now. The pressure to have the ‘ideal’ body becomes more and more intense with every fitness-related post you see.

Dr Ian Drever, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in Woking, says, ‘We only see the tip of the iceberg, because most people who are struggling with exercise addiction wouldn’t think to seek psychiatric help. They’d probably turn to a personal trainer or nutritionist.’

And as more of us become loud-and-proud gym bunnies, bragging about our workouts and green juice on Instagram and fitness blogs, it is even easier for addicts to blend in and look the same as everyone else.

‘People with exercise addiction are praised by many people in a society that is obsessed with fighting the “obesity epidemic”, with fitness and being thin,’ says Dr Kim Dennis, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Centre in Illinois. So even when it is a symptom of a deeper problem, it is easily overlooked.

‘We definitely see people who use exercise to cover up psychological distress,’ says Dr Drever. This is definitely how it began for me when, aged 20 and having major spinal and breathing problems. I joined the local gym and started working out for an hour, maybe an hour and a half every night.

I discovered that the feel-good chemicals released by a workout left me brighter, calmer, and more alert. Most importantly, it was helping my back pain and making breathing easier, so I upped my regime.

I would spend an hour doing cardio and then another two hours lifting weights and, soon after, I began to rely on it. Rather then being a healthy habit, it became a coping mechanism to deal with stress, home-sickness, heartache and pretty much any other feeling that I didn’t want to feel. I learned to push myself beyond my perceived limits. If I felt exhausted or was hurting, I’d knock back painkillers with a double scoop of pre-workout and continue on.

No one said, “Alisha you’re overdoing it.” Instead, people congratulated me for being so committed. But by then I had a feeling something wasn’t right; only I didn’t know what to do about it, or how to admit that I couldn’t imagine my life without daily exercise. Meanwhile, I was weakening my joints and immune system by continuing to train despite injury, illness and exhaustion.

The turning point came one day when I almost cried while looking in that gym mirror.  I looked at my body and honestly felt sadness. All the pushing and sweating hadn’t even resulted in the definition I was after. Instead, I looked haggard and bloated (the retention of body fat is common side-effect of excessive cortisol, a stress hormone released by exercise).

I knew then that my focus had to change if I were ever to release myself from the endless guilt of trying, and failing, to be perfect. I’ve always had two voices in my head: the half of me that curses and says, ‘What’s wrong with you? Keep going!’ And the kinder, healthier half that says gently ‘you shouldn’t be here’. That was the first time the kind voice won. It was the start of my road to recovery.

Talking out loud about it helps, even if it’s just to some friends or family, people who really truly love you. And I began to limit myself to four to five workouts a week, mixing high and low intensities. Most importantly, I allowed myself to rest when I felt tired.

Slowly, gradually, it worked. I’m not completely ‘fixed’ (I still fall back into my old ways when I’m under stress), but I’ve recognized the problem. When I see those symptoms creeping back, I make sure I stop myself from going to the gym and confide in my friends, who are thankfully supportive.

At the end of the day, having wash board abs and a big butt isn’t the end-all-be-all, what I really want from life is to live fully and unconditionally, with no regrets.  After all, pain isn’t weakness leaving the body, sometimes it’s your body telling you to stop.

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