About Exercise AddictionToo much exercise can lead to obsession

We all know that physical exercise offers many health-giving benefits. These include strengthened muscles and bones, and a reduced likelihood of developing such nasties as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Not to mention its mood-enhancing and stress-busting properties. But some people take it too far and become exercise addicts. According to Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas, authors of The Truth About Exercise Addiction, a worrying 25% of all runners suffer with exercise addiction, compared with 0.3% of the general population.

Nature’s best stressbuster

Our over-complicated, over-sedentary, over-digitised 21st century lifestyles have a lot to answer for when it comes to creating stress. Exercise is certainly an effective way to counter this. Any form of physical activity releases endorphins – chemicals that enhance mood – in the brain but this is particularly true of cardiovascular exercise such as running and cycling. That’s why you get the ‘runner’s high’, and it’s also why you want to keep repeating the experience.

I’m seeing more and more highly stressed professionals self-medicating with excessive exercise. They cycle or run to work, put in a full and often stressful day, and then cycle or run home. They sign up to increasingly testing challenges – running further and in more and more difficult conditions or trekking and climbing all over the world. They’re on the brink of developing an addiction to exercise.

Symptoms of exercise addiction

  • Ever more exercise is needed to achieve the perceived benefits – the exercise ‘high’, increased self-esteem or reduction in anxiety – with addicts regularly exceeding their exercise limits.
  • Addicts experience withdrawal effects (anger, fatigue, anxiety) when they cannot work out as planned.
  • Time spent exercising is often at the expense of that spent with family and friends, at work or doing non-exercise related activities.
  • They persist with physical activity despite illness, injury, anxiety and depression and even against medical advice to take a break.

Exercise addiction and injury

If someone’s exercise goal is unrealistic or the lifestyle unsustainable then the chances of something physically ‘giving way’ eventually is high.

Which is when they appear in my Osteopath Clinic looking for an instant cure for their shin splints, muscle strain, fatigue and so on.  We are, after all, the ‘next-day delivery’ generation that expects a guaranteed recovery in just days or even hours. So, imagine their distress when I explain that the healing-time for an exercise-induced torn ligament for example, can stretch into weeks, requiring plenty of rest and patience, alongside Osteopathic treatment. My patients are then deprived of a tried and trusted outlet for their stress, which escalates.

I always look beyond the injury that brought the patient to my Clinic and probe deeper into their lifestyle and emotional wellbeing. This usually provides helpful clues for treatment and preventing a re-occurrence. As a qualified Osteopath and Naturopath, I work with patients to identify areas that might be undermining their health, such as diet, lifestyle choices, medical history, and physical or emotional circumstances. Treatment plans then encourage the body to heal itself and help guard against future illness or injury.

Give stress the boot

Since stress can be such a large part of the mix, I encourage patients to engage in new ways of managing it:

  • Autogenic therapy, a type of relaxation. I teach patients a set of simple mental and physical exercises and techniques, often incorporating this therapy into a patient’s treatment plan to help them manage their stress and/anxiety and promote greater healing of both mind and body.
  • Mindfulness. This is hugely popular and has become big business with plenty of its own apps and gadgets! But the basic idea is good – paying more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings, and the world around you. Rather than sitting cross-legged focussing on one’s breath, ‘being in the moment’ and relaxing can take many different forms – long walks, gardening, swimming or even talking to friends. All these ways of unwinding can be a refreshing break from distractions (especially electronic ones) and have huge benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing. You can find out more about Mindfulness here.

The good news is that most people who exercise are able to maintain a healthy balance with the other areas of their life. So, please get in touch if you’ve got a pain or niggle anywhere, or if you’d like any advice on how to relax, manage stress or establish healthy habits.

 

A mindful activity

Hands up who really understands what Mindfulness is?

As an activity it’s become fashionable with its own gadgets, Apps, clothing and general paraphernalia! All of which I fundamentally disagree with, which is why I dislike the word ‘Mindful’.
Having said that, I have no problem with Mindfulness as a practice, provided that a) it’s not hijacked by commerciality and b) people understand what it is – and is not.

Mindfulness explained

It’s about:

  • Being present – engaging with the here and now, paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, sensations, as well as to the world around you. Not letting your mind wander to your shopping list or what’s on TV tonight!
  • Living with intent – deliberately moving through your life rather than being on auto-pilot.
  • Accepting that life isn’t perfect, so working with what you have now, not what was or should have been.

Why should we bother?

Being Mindful can have huge benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing by:

  • providing a break from distractions (especially electronic ones)
  • reducing anxiety, stress and the (very real) possibility of burnout
  • improving attention span
  • boosting creativity
  • enabling us to manage our emotions better
  • helping to reshape our perspective, bringing us back to what’s important in life

 Main barriers to being Mindful

We simply don’t have the time or space, thanks to our fast-paced, teched-up 24/7 lifestyles. When did you last sit down and reflect quietly or walk the dog without being attached to an electronic gadget?

I swim regularly, as many of my patients know. It enables me to ‘be in the moment’. I feel the water on my body, I pay attention to my breathing and I clear my mind. For me, riding my motorbike in the countryside or walking the dog is equally good.

Recently, I spent a week in Portugal on a woodworking course, learning how to make a chair from a mimosa tree using traditional woodworking tools. The scenery was spectacular and I enjoyed the sun and warmth on my body, the feel of the wood and the creative process of making the chair. The action of planing was soothing and therapeutic. There were no bleeps, rings or reminders to do things. I just lived in the moment, on my senses. And it was wonderful.

I’m not saying that everyone should go to Portugal. Or that you need special kit or gadgets. In fact, the opposite is true – anything can be done in a mindful way by anyone!

Tips for being Mindful

  1. Sit down quietly and become aware of your senses: notice what you can you see, smell, taste, touch and hear, to help keep yourself in the moment. If your mind wanders, just notice it and gently bring it back to your senses. Try this for just a few minutes at a time.
  2. Start each day with a few deep breaths and think about your top three priorities. Check back at different points during the day to see if you’re on track for achieving these.
  3. At the beginning of each task, take a minute to breathe, refocus and get into the moment, giving it your full attention. Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task but sometimes focusing on one activity and seeing it through to its conclusion is simply better.
  4. Set boundaries so that you switch off mentally at the end of each day, giving your brain time to recharge ready for tomorrow.

So, do think about giving it a go this summer, remembering the one golden rule of Mindfulness: anytime, anywhere – and anyone!