About Exercise Addiction
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.