Exercise is undeniably good for us—for our bodies and our minds—but what happens when it stops being healthy?
Of course, physical activity has health benefits, and it’s been proven to positively impact one’s emotional well being and help combat the effects of anxiety, depression, and overall mental health.
In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a sharp uptick in trendy workout crazes like SoulCycle and Barre, programs that promise to change your life and your body if you’re willing to shell out a ton of money, don some fancy athletic gear, and join a class. Then there’s High Intensity Interval Training, the gym method that’s supposed to guarantee tons of calories burnt and pounds lost.
Making working out a habitual part of your life is important, useful, and beneficial, but how do you know when you’ve gone too far?
Like with any other addiction, exercise addicts become dependent upon working out and develop an obsession so severe that it interferes with their ability to go about their day-to-day lives. According to Psychology Today, somewhere around 3% of regular exercisers become addicted to working out. Here are some of the red flags to watch out for, and how to tell if you or someone you know maybe a little too into feeling the burn.
1. Ignoring Pain
Since they are often made anxious by the thought of missing a workout, exercise-addicted individuals are likely to push through and continue to work out despite extreme pain or injury. This phenomenon, often referred to as continuance, points to an individual’s inability to stop their exercise despite harmful effects.
Someone suffering from an exercise addiction might sprain their ankle but continue to run, or even increase their speed. Pain is a powerful indicator, but an addict will likely ignore the signs that their body needs a break; Addiction can cause athletes to injure themselves irreparably because they force their bodies to work past what they can actually handle.
2. Disregarding Priorities
While hitting the gym rather than seeing a movie with friends seems like a great way to prioritize getting in shape, neglecting other areas of one’s life in order to maintain a strict exercise regimen is a definite warning sign. Of course, individuals who make a commitment to getting in shape have to prioritize regular exercise, which means something else will probably have to take a backseat to breaking a sweat.
An addict, though, will probably be noticeably absent from most social gatherings. They aren’t just addicted to the actual workout, but also consumed by thoughts and anxieties regarding staying in shape, so they are likely to appear distracted, disengaged, or unfocused, which can often cause disagreements with friends and loved ones.
3. Strictly Scheduling Workouts
A surefire sign of a real problem is an inability to miss or move a scheduled workout session. If an individual plans to start their day by working out from nine to 10 in the morning, for instance, but hears they actually need to report to work earlier than planned, they’ll struggle heavily with the idea of changing the allotted time. They may spend entire days overcome with anxiety about when and for how long they’ll be able to get to the gym, or become depressed and withdrawn if they have no choice but to abandon their predetermined plan.
4. Dealing With Continuance and Control
A common phenomenon amongst addicts, continuance is characterized by an ability to stop exercising or to stick to a specific amount of time. An addict may feel they can’t “complete” an exercise or stop after the allotted time is up, but will switch to a different workout or continue by doubling the amount of time to work “harder.” They may feel completely out of control during a workout and be truly unable to work less hard or for less time, even if they recognize they have a problem.
5. Showing Signs of Unhappiness
As is common with other addictions, exercise obsession may leave individuals feeling lost, unhappy, or unsatisfied when they’re not involved in physical activity. They are likely to increase the amount of time they spend in the gym or in a class because they feel they can only be happy when they’re involved in exercise.
If you’re concerned you might be affected by an exercise addiction, or that someone you know may be taking their fitness too much to heart, a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you determine if there’s something to be worried about.
If you think you may be pushing your body too hard or doing something that isn’t quite right, consider consulting a trainer, physical therapist, or doctor before you try a new regimen or class. Getting to the gym and getting in shape may feel good, but it’s meant to benefit your wellbeing, not destroy it.