Alcoholism and nicotine dependence are two of the most common forms of addiction in the world. That comes as no surprise. But exercise? Can you even be addicted to exercise?
Well, yes. Exercise addiction is a real thing.
Drinking too much alcohol and frequent smoking are associated with the myriad of debilitating health consequences, you know, lung cancer, liver cirrhosis, infertility, heart damage, and the list goes on.
But how can exercise be addictive when the Health Promotion Board of Singapore is trying to promote exercise to keep more Singaporeans engaged in an active lifestyle? Exercising helps us improve our aerobic fitness, trim our waist-lines, prevent many diseases, and are responsible for improving our sex-life. With all these good things, surely we can't say that it is addictive.
Yes, it is undoubtedly true that exercise is crucial to living a healthy and happy life. But as with all things, moderation is key.
How Can Exercise Be Addictive?
Exercise addiction is an unhealthy obsession with exercise and physical fitness. This obsession is often associated with body image disorders and eating disorders. Those who have these disorders view exercise as the panacea to their perceived bodily flaws. Naturally, they exercise obsessively in pursuit of the perfect body.
It also does not help that there is a gym in every corner of Singapore and social media are full of people posting about their workout sessions and routines. This creates a social pressure on the individual to exercise to conform.
Apart from body image disorders and eating disorders, there is also an addictive need to maintain one's identity, especially if a lot of time and effort was invested in a particular sport. One might identify oneself as an endurance athlete, a weight-lifter, the guy with the bulging biceps, or the runner that wakes up for his 5km run when the neighborhood is still sound asleep.
It is the need to maintain identities such as these that bring us to do the same exercises over and over again — even though we might not enjoy them like we used to. We fear how others' opinions of us would change if we no longer are the people we used to be. Consequently, we go about our lives mechanically fostering such identities.
You might also find that those prone to exercise addiction usually have difficulties in other aspects of their lives. Exercise then becomes their escape valves. Instead of facing difficulties, they might prefer to express their emotions through exercising. While it might be argued that is indeed a healthy way to cope with the stresses of life compared to other vices, it is problematic when it becomes the only way.
Why Exercise Addiction Can Be Bad
One obvious reason why exercise addiction is bad is the potential for it to be counter-productive, especially if the addiction leads to over-exercising. Inflammation and micro-tears in our muscles are crucial from muscle growth, but having inflammation throughout your body on a daily basis does your body more harm than good. Our body needs time to recover and exhausting our bodies without having off-days takes away our energy for other biological processes in our body.
On the same note, exercise addiction might lead to a total disregard of signals from our bodies to rest when rest is needed. As opposed to exercising as per normal, a sick person should prioritize rest and a sleep-deprived individual should adjust his or her workout according to the state they are in.
Beyond just the biological harm that exercise addiction can induce, exercise addiction can also gravitate us towards an imbalanced lifestyle. Our priorities can be affected by the overemphasis of exercise in our lives.
How To Not Be Addicted
Understandably, it is hard to break from the addictive need to exercise. A good part of it is biological. Take, for example, the runner's high or the dopamine released from a workout. These are hormones released in our bodies that make us feel good. That is sometimes why we feel grumpy when we haven't exercised in a while and we feel the strong urge to hit the gym or go for a run. Sounds like a withdrawal syndrome, doesn't it? Indeed, excessive exercise can build up a tolerance for the feel-good hormones such that more exercise is needed to make us feel the same way.
But exercise is meant for us to exert control of our bodies and not for it to gain control over us. Exercising mindfully is especially important for us to exercise healthily. To do that, we need to first be conscious of the reasons why we are exercising.
The next time you exercise, ask yourself in a non-judgmental manner, "Why am I doing what I am doing?". You might have a ready list of reasons or you might be stumped by the question. Either way, asking such a question will help you clarify your goals for exercising. If you find that you are addicted to exercising, speak to your doctor.
Exercise addiction is something we do not talk about a lot in public discourse because, in many ways, exercise leaves a positive impact on our wellbeing. For that reason, be careful to not let exercise insidiously become an addiction for you. Nonetheless, enjoy the exercise you are doing and, no matter what you do, be kind to yourself!