Working out is healthy, right? For most people, the answer is absolutely yes! Exercise is a phenomenal stress reliever and is necessary for your bones and your heart to function at optimal levels. For 10 to 15 percent of the population, however, working out can turn into an exercise addiction. Sufferers exercise for hours a day, in spite of injury or illness. They may even miss out on work, school, or important social events in fear of skipping a workout. While many sufferers of exercise addiction meet the criteria for an eating disorder, not all of them do.
When does a good thing cross that line into a problem? Ask yourself if you display three or more of the following signs:
- Tolerance: you find yourself needing to work out more and more to see desired results
- Withdrawal: you become irritable or anxious if you need to miss a day
- Intention: you keep finding yourself working out for longer periods of time than you set out to
- Lack of control: exercise is ruling your life and you can't seem to stop
- Time: you spend a great deal of time exercising or thinking about working out
- Reductions in other activities: you miss out on other events (e.g., time with friends and family) because you have to work out
- Continuance: you keep working out despite injury or illness
What should you do if you are walking the tightrope of exercise addiction?
1. Seek help. Do research, speak with a loved one, reaching out is the first step to fixing the problem.
2. Understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy exercise. Most government sites recommend 30 to 60 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity most days of the week and strength training for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week.
3. Frequently check in with yourself to see if exercise is exacerbating your symptoms of eating disordered behaviors or exercise addiction. Realize that if you are newly diagnosed or just suspect you may have a problem, you may not be the best judge, as you will likely rationalize your activity levels. If that's the case, ask a close friend or loved one help you monitor your behavior.
If you suffer from exercise addiction, regardless of whether or not you meet the criteria for an eating disorder, you will likely be asked by a professional to change your exercise habits. How do therapists and doctors decide what's healthy and what's not when you are in recovery? If you have a substantial amount of weight to gain, they will ask you to stop exercising entirely – especially cardiovascular activity – as the goal is to put weight back on. If you have less weight to gain, they may allow you to lift weights a few days a week – nothing too strenuous – and do a small amount of cardio (e.g., 20 minutes two times a week of low impact cardio like the elliptical machine). If your weight is not an issue, but you still suffer from exercise addiction or an eating disorder, they may allow you to do more activity, but they will still likely give you limits.
Regardless, your doctor or therapist will have you monitor how you feel throughout this recovery process. For example, if you are able to exercise without displaying any signs of exercise addiction, they will likely allow you to gradually increase the amount of time you work out while staying in a healthy range. Still, they will likely ask you to keep your workouts to a minimum, so you don't overdo it or fall back into an eating disordered mentality.
Exercise can be a wonderful tool in the recovery process from an eating disorder – just make sure your doctor approves your activity level and you aren't doing anything to make your symptoms worsen.