Published October 17, 2012
It sounds like an oxymoron – exercise has a healthy connotation, while addiction sounds negative.
But experts are seeing some people abuse a healthy lifestyle – and for one Los Angeles woman, the addiction lasted nearly 20 years.
Misti, a 46-year-old woman who declined to give her last name due to privacy concerns, said she became addicted to exercise after college.
“It wasn’t until recently that I knew exercise addiction was a problem,” said Misti, who is in a 12-step program and has tried medicinal therapy. “At one point, I had three gym memberships, two trainers and … I was obsessed.”
Misti said like an alcoholic looking for the next drink, she had to be near a gym at all times.
“I had to scope it out, and wherever I was going to travel for work, the first question I would ask was not, ‘where am I staying?,’ but ‘how far is the gym from the hotel?’” Misti said, adding she chose to exercise over spending time with her friends or boyfriends.
It got to a point where if Misti missed her morning workout, she would leave work to exercise – or if she ate a big holiday meal, she would immediately go running – and not spend time with her family.
“I had to know when the next triathlon was,” she said, adding she constantly thought about burning an extra pound or if she should be lifting more weights. “All my life revolved around the next exercise ‘fix.’”
Experiencing a 'high'
At first, the people around Misti thought she was just trying to be healthy – but it soon became apparent she had a real problem. Her family and friends tried to speak up – but she thought they were the mistaken ones.
Experts say since exercise releases endorphins, exercise addicts can experience a ‘high’ similar to drug and alcohol addicts.
David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University medical school, told the New York Times in October 2011 that exercise addicts can also feel tolerance, cravings and withdrawal.
There are three types of addiction – chemical, process and physiological, said Andrew Spanswick, a social worker and CEO of KLEAN Treatment Center, which is located in areas across the country.
Twelve to 18 percent of Americans have an addiction, and most people have more than one, Spanswick said. Exercise addiction is classified as a process disorder – just like sex or gambling addictions.
When an action or thought dictates a repetitive behavior to satisfy that drive – then you have a problem, Spanswick added.
“Someone who has a compulsive disorder to exercise actually has a problem where they miss out on everything else in their life at the expense of having to do all this exercise,” said Spanswick, who has not treated Misti, but has consulted with her. “They have this overwhelming sense of anxiety and drive that ‘normal’ people don’t.”
Spanswick said the problem with over-exercising is that a person can get to the point where the psychological pain outweighs the benefits you would normally achieve from a physical standpoint – and it can harm your body, too.
By their late 30s or 40s, exercise addicts can usually see the toll the behavior has taken on their body: joint pain, cardiac arrest and mini strokes, just to name a few.
At KLEAN, Spanswick said addicts who come for treatment are initially assessed and then baselined – meaning they go through a detox. Then, medications and therapeutic processes begin, which include cognitive behavioral therapy. This helps them admit what their problem is and then modifies that behavior through insight.
Addictions usually occur because of some sort of trauma, Spanswick said; perhaps a direct relation to a childhood trauma, such as abuse or an emotional loss.
For Misti, whose family has a history of addiction, she said her parents drinking tore the family apart, and that was quite painful for her. Her parents ended up divorcing, and Misti said her mother was “like a bombshell – very sexy, very tiny . . .very conscious of her weight and looks.”
It is common for people with body image problems, like Misti, to compare themselves to their parents – sometimes without even knowing it.
One of Misti’s turning points came a few years ago when she was traveling, and airport security pulled her aside. They took her exercise equipment out of her bag, which included a jump rope with 12-pound weights on both sides and kickboxing gloves.
Shortly thereafter, her cousins made a remark about how she brought her own sugar substitutes to family gatherings, and a friend mentioned she should see a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
Then it clicked. Misti realized exercise addiction was a form of eating disorders, and she sought help.
Today, Misti is healthier and focuses more of her attention on helping others .
“For me, my goal is to think, ‘How can I be of service to someone else?’” she said. “It gets me out of my body…and I think for me that is the way I get out of it.”
It’s not always easy – and Misti admits she has to take her recovery one day at a time, but she doesn’t panic as easily if she misses a workout.
“OK, I didn’t do it today, I’ll go tomorrow,” she said with a smile.