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When fitness turns fanatic

With today’s hectic lifestyles and social commitments, many of us are now allocating more time than ever to the gym to relieve stress and achieve the ultimate healthy lifestyle.  

But is there a point when too much of a good thing becomes bad for us? How do we know when exercise has become more of an obsession, than a passion?

There are many reasons why people become addicted to any one thing and, like most addictions, a unique set of circumstances usually sets up that addiction,” says Sarah McMahon, psychologist and director at BodyMatters Australasia.

McMahon notes that exercise regulates negative affect at a physiological level with the release of anxiolytic and antidepressive hormones. She says that this leads to psychological dependence and withdrawal effects if exercise can’t be maintained.

Other factors that lead to exercise addiction include personality features, such as perfectionism, compulsivity, behavioural rigidity, and weight and shape concerns.

“Signs that an addiction may be developing are when exercise no longer feels like a person’s choice or that the person “needs” to exercise to feel good,” says McMahon.

“Instead exercise is about “ticking boxes” or adhering to rules.”  

McMahon also notes that exercising becomes about avoidance of guilt or other emotional withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, anger, irritability or depression.

But it’s not just our physical health that is impacted by too much exercise.  It’s also our mental health.

“The impact of too much exercise on mental health can be subtle, simply because exercise is typically associated with good health and positive mood,” says McMahon.

“Ultimately over-exercising can impact on an individual’s participation in life and their ability to foster other healthy coping strategies.”

So what are the most common signs that indicate exercising has become an addiction, and what are the impacts of this?

Exercising when injured 

Leanne Hall is a psychologist and personal trainer.  She says that, whilst it’s true that some exercise can help heal injury, it needs to be under the guidance of a physio or health professional.

“When you’re injured, your body needs to heal with rest. It can’t do this if you continue to put stress on it,” she says.

Hall notes that exercising when injured can not only prevent healing but also increase the chances of re-injury, potentially turning a minor injury into something much worse.

“Depending on the injury, over exercising could also cause structural damage, which may mean surgery and leads to a much longer recovery time,” she says.

“It can also cause other injuries, as the body tries to compensate for the existing injury, and can lead to anxiety and depression.”

Exercising to exhaustion and without recovery 

Hall notes that exercising to the point of exhaustion is subjective as everyone is different. However, when you feel you have no fuel left in your tank and continue exercising regularly anyway, this could lead to over training.

“Over training syndrome is when you push your body beyond it’s natural ability to recover,” says Hall.  “This can result in a range of problems, although none of them are immediate.”

In the longer term, Hall says that not allowing time for rest and recovery between workouts can result in muscular and neurological imbalances, hormone imbalance, depleted immune system, fatigue, depression and increased risk of injury.

Multiple workouts a day 

Hall says that, whilst endurance athletes and elite athletes must workout more than once a day, they nurture their body and listen to it.  They also build up to this type of training slowly.

“For someone who all of a sudden starts hitting the gym several times a day, they can expect the impacts to be negative,” she says.

“Too much stress on the body can increase the risk of injury, cause muscle wastage, and deplete your immune system. It can also cause fatigue, poor output and a sense of underachievement.”

Hall adds that the longer-term implications include illness, injury and muscular imbalances.

Not enjoying exercise anymore – or taking longer to get that ‘high’ 

Both experts note that people who become addicted or obsessed with exercise often grow to dislike it because it seems to ‘control them’ more and more.

The pleasurable experience once obtained from it is lost over time and feeling ‘forced’ to do it breeds feelings of resentment, irritability and depression.

It also becomes harder to obtain a ‘natural high’.

“The maintaining features of exercise addiction mean that a person needs to work harder and harder”, says McMahon.

“Positive mood benefits of exercise occur within the first 20 minutes of mild to moderate exercise and vigorous exercise doesn’t have the same positive effect.”

Prioritising exercise over other activities 

McMahon says that exercise needs to be sustainable and, for it to be so, it needs to be flexible.

“Occasionally prioritising exercise over other activities may be necessary, however, if exercise is continually prioritised over other things then this is usually indicative of an exercise addiction,” she says.

By compromising other important aspects of life, such as work, education, family and friends, there’s a risk of friendship loss, loneliness and isolation.

In addition to this, self worth can suffer potentially resulting in poor self-esteem and, in some cases, depression.

Jo Hartley

About the person who wrote this

Jo Hartley

Jo Hartley is a freelance features writer whose work has appeared in multiple publications both online and in print. When Jo’s not writing, she can be found pondering her next healthy lifestyle attempt whilst eating Nutella straight from the jar.

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