Hooked on the Pain: Exercise Addiction
By Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel
While most of the country is concerned with the epidemic of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle and rightly so, exercise addiction on the other end of the spectrum needs attention, too. Running on a treadmill for hours, spinning out of control or climbing stairs that lead to nowhere, exercise addicts have lost their physical, emotional and spiritual balance. Most of the fanatics are women thirty-five to sixty. All are desperately afraid of aging in a youth-oriented society. They are unhappy about their physical appearance and their life. Some wonder as they approach mid-life if they have accomplished anything significant. They work hard to defy gravity: If they overeat, so what? The next day they can work out even longer than the three to five hours a day they normally do! Exercise addiction is an eating disorder like anorexia and bulimia.
The Personality of the Exercise Addict
After many conversations with exercise addicts I realized how fundamentally unhappy these female worker-outers really were. Even the loveliest woman I spoke to, I will not use any names here for obvious reasons, expressed frustration, “I’m too heavy” “Not sculpted enough” “I should eat more protein and fewer carbs.” When I told her how beautiful her face and body truly were, she scoffed, “You’re just being nice!” Also, she confided that part of the reason for her rigorous weight lifting and aerobics program was that her young son was an obsessive-compulsive, hyperactive child with attention deficit syndrome. The burden of his care rested with her, even when her husband was home on weekends. In addition, when he was home, he didn’t pay much attention to her, either.
Another over-exerciser, I know nicknamed, the duracell energizer bunny who just won’t quit, is in her mid-fifties and adheres to a painful exercise program. Working out between four to five hours seven days a week, I have observed this petite brunette lose weight –which she didn’t need to do—along with muscle mass. Now she is gaunt with more noticeable wrinkles on her face and her body is much flabbier than it used to be as she is burning muscle mass. In between her aerobics and weight training sessions she showers at the gym and blows her hair dry, putting on layers of makeup. She dons the mask of youth, but in my eyes and in the eyes of the other trainers, she looks like an old woman with layers of makeup. She runs a successful business, but her husband ignores her. They no longer have sexual relations, so the energizer bunny, invests that primal energy into her workouts.
I observed that periodically exercise addicts break the addiction for months at a time, working out more reasonably and then resume the frenetic pace again. One woman I interviewed during her reasonable phase said that when she took a look at herself objectively, she realized how crazy the whole thing was. “I’m not going to look like an eighteen year old at forty-five. I realize that when I have family problems, I over-exercise. When things ease up at home, I can step aside and see this for what it is—crazy! Also, working out near the other crazies, I get sucked into it. It gets hard to break away from them.” Apparently, exercise addiction is contagious.
These women carry the expression, no pain, no gain to the extreme. If they don’t hurt physically, or feel exhausted, annihilated so to speak, they keep on exercising. I have heard comments like, “That was an amazing class. I could barely breathe. I call it death by step!” “What a great training session—he killed me!”
How Can We Solve This Problem?
This raises the ethical question: Is it a trainer’s responsibility to pull in the reigns on a runaway horse? Many trainers at gyms are reluctant to speak up since these over exercisers are the consumers; other trainers try to reshape their client’s mindsets. When I discussed the subject with Frank Mikulka, a respected trainer at the Hollywood Atrium Club in Long Island with over thirty years experience, he responded: “Just last week I cancelled a client, no charge, when I saw her doing two hours of cardio before our weight training session. What kind of strength and energy can she devote to her workout? She has reached the point of diminishing returns and I will not train a depleted client and tax her muscles. I have to take a stand even at a personal cost. Next time she will know that if she wants to train with me she can’t work out for hours beforehand or afterwards.”
Like any addiction, exercise addiction requires motivation and commitment to quit. The first step is to stay away from aerobics and weight training sessions for a month. During that resting phase the addict needs to meditate even if just five minutes a day using a personal affirmation for serenity as a springboard to developing the emotional/spiritual components of personality. Alternatively, taking a nature walk, a walking meditation, will help align body and mind. Journaling during the day is helpful to get to the root cause of personal unhappiness. Many deep thoughts emerge when one is writing them down, placing them in a drawer and reading them later on for greater objectivity.
Finding the Still Point Within?
The goal of meditation and journaling is to increase focused attention. Instead of generating wild, distracted energy, the exerciser would be fully focused on her workout, making it concentrated and effective instead of unruly momentum. Another goal would be to cultivate an open presence which means to be acutely aware physically and spiritually of every action—to be in the moment—participating and observing at the same time. The last goal is to cultivate compassion for the self and for other people by re-interpreting negative, irritating situations with compassion, love and forgiveness.
In other words, instead of eroding the joints, doing internal organ damage, perpetuating the depression, the over-exerciser needs to develop these basic Zen attributes to heal both mind and body. That means to re-discover the truth through personal experience and to increase flexibility regarding workout time. Make stretching an integral part of the workout routine. By stretching the body instead of contracting or pounding it into submission, the spirit will begin to yield to this more flexible thinking. Ultimately, relationships at home and at work will become more pliant and less stressful.
The over-exerciser needs to change her word choice. To begin her statements with “I feel,” instead of “I think.” She needs to constantly ask herself the question, “How does it feel?” -- Because the exercise addict no longer feels her body or sees how beautiful she really is. Remember the mind can rationalize anything even an addiction. Feelings are more honest.
Like any addiction, recovery begins with the first step. In this case recovery begins with rest and contemplation or not taking any physical steps. Ultimately, how do I want to be remembered: How thin I was or…?
Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel, MA is the author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer at Brooklyn College. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WLIR 92.7 FM in New York City and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com