Exercise addiction fosters unhealthy behaviors


Courtesy of Stanford

Exercise apps can make exercise addiction worse.

Lauren Carpenter, Staff Columnist

You have just finished what you feel is the best run of your entire life. You can feel the energy of your heartbeat throughout your body and an endorphin rush courses through your veins. 

You look down to check your fitness tracker and feel your heart sink when you realize you haven’t burned as many calories as you expected. 

Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like you finished a satisfying run. Instead, it feels like you haven’t lived up to your past standard, or like you’re regressing. 

You become obsessive about exercise, and your entire body aches with the physical strain you’ve placed on it, but for some reason skipping a day seems nearly impossible. 

Exercise is unquestionably good for us, but it can be extremely difficult to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy exercise. Not all cases of unhealthy exercise equate to exercise addiction but overexercising to any extent can easily lead to these obsessive behaviors. 

Tracking numbers — whether that’s in times, distances, calories, weights or repetitions — can easily tip the scale towards obsessive behaviors. This is when a negative connotation between moving your body and numbers develops. Exercise is rarely healthy when too much emphasis is placed on the control of numbers. 

Exercise for the sake of personal benefit as opposed to training for something specific should mean taking care of your body and achieving a feeling of mental and physical strength. The moment you go for an extra run because you feel numerically dissatisfied with the first one is the moment you cross the line from healthy to unhealthy exercise. It is alarmingly simple to get carried away in the world of tracking and numbers, and it can lead to some extremely dangerous lifestyle changes. 

Behaviors of overexercising are commonly linked to various health problems such as an altered heart rate, bone density loss, absent menstrual cycles, persistent fatigue and an increased frequency of illness. In severe cases, overexercising is strongly associated with several types of eating disorders — as many of these behaviors coincide. While exercise addiction is not yet classified as a mental disorder in the DSM-5, many psychologists are working towards giving it a place in the handbook. 

So, you’ve become carried away with obsessing over exercise, tracking every number and feeling constantly dissatisfied with your workouts. Now what? 

Recognizing that the harms of your exercise exceed the benefits is a triumph, but making the decision to overcome an exercise addiction is incredibly challenging. 

Taking time away from exercise is essential to give your body a physical break. This is also a mental game — as missing even one workout can lead to mental restlessness, guilt and feelings of anxiety. Pushing past these hurdles can be difficult, but with time, taking days off will become more manageable. Fitness trackers are easy to become attached to, but they prevent us from relying on our intuitions. 

Aside from taking a break, ditching the fitness tracker can be a life-changing decision. Without the constant reminder of numbers, you have a chance to genuinely listen to your body’s signals. We should not be letting a device tell us we haven’t done enough. Abandoning the fitness tracker can be mentally challenging if you’ve been excessively checking it every day, but recreating a lifestyle that doesn’t rely on this technology is a huge step in recovering from exercise addiction. 

Eventually, reintroducing light exercise to take care of your physical wellbeing can be beneficial. Starting with yoga, walks or short jogs while maintaining a mental mindset of physical well-being rather than one of tracking numbers can be very healing. It can also be helpful to do these light exercises with a friend to reinforce the idea that exercise should be about enjoyment and caring for your body. 

Moderation is essential to creating a positive relationship with exercise. If you have become obsessed with tracking numbers and exercise, understanding the problem and working towards repairing negative connotations is absolutely possible and is certainly worth the work. Give yourself a break, re-evaluate your mindset and make a concerted effort to exercise solely to take care of your mental and physical well-being.