Avoiding Exercise Addiction: The Key is Awareness and Balance

Woman runningOkay, the holidays are over and it is the beginning of a New Year and you want to work on the new you. You have created an idea of how you want to move forward with your exercise plan and have bought a membership to your local gym or fitness studio. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot could go wrong if you are not aware of the imbalances in your life.

Many people start off by having the goal of attaining a certain fitness milestone and make the commitment to themselves that they will work hard at keeping that resolution. The imbalance occurs when the commitment to exercise crosses the line from the healthy use of exercise to dependence, thus leading to addictive behavior. Some people might respond, “Exercise isn’t a drug, so how can it be considered an addiction?” To answer that question, it’s important to understand a healthy and unhealthy perspective of change.

With a healthy perspective, a person may choose change because they feel that the equilibrium is off in their life. This desire for change could occur when either their work–life balance has shifted to the work side and life has taken the back seat or work is suffering because of other pursuits, but balance hasn’t been attained. With an unhealthy perspective, a person chooses change because they fall victim to their internal voice stating that they should or must exercise in order to be functional. The internal voice is the key to understanding what you believe about yourself, the world, and your future.  When that voice is punitive and judgmental, an unhealthy perspective can begin to form.

When a person tells themselves that they must work out for whatever time or amount they have chosen, it is important to be flexible in their goals and plans. Below are some examples of when exercise could have crossed the line from a goal-oriented health tool to a compulsive addiction:

  • When there is no flexibility in your schedule; for instance, if something causes you to miss your lunch-time run and you beat yourself up inside for missing it
  • You experience a loss of interest in doing anything other than exercising, such as working out three times a day while avoiding other aspects of who you are
  • You experience depression or anxiety for missing a workout; in more severe cases, a person with an exercise addiction may feel intense sadness, inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, intense fear, or even panic attacks if they are not working out
  • You experience a compulsion to work out even if you are injured or sick and could benefit greatly from resting your body
  • Multiple people have commented on your excessive exercise habits and state that they notice what they deem as excessive exercise behaviors
  • Exercising has gotten in the way of your relationships, job, sleep, or your health; an example of this is when a person arrives late for work or calls in sick when they really plan on going to the gym multiple times that day or if a person who suffers from exercise addiction avoids their family and friends altogether, yet has plenty of time and motivation for exercise

Examining your internal voice and understanding your motives starts with awareness. Once you are aware of the imbalance, you then have a choice. When you are not aware of the imbalances in your life, you may fall victim to old patterns and negative thoughts that may lead to addictions and compulsions.

Tips for a healthy, balanced exercise regimen:

  • When starting a new exercise regimen, it is important to consult your physician to make sure that you are in good health so that you can physically do exercises and you are not putting your body at risk if there are any preexisting conditions.
  • Contact a registered dietitian who can educate and coach you on the most beneficial meal plan for what you are hoping to do.
  • Write a list of goals regarding your vision with exercise. Examine why you want change. Be honest in your assessment of what you can do and the timeline you need to accomplish it. What happens when you have to reschedule your workout? Will you be flexible and compassionate with yourself or will your negative thoughts flow with self-defeat? For example, if you tell yourself that you are worthless or won’t attain your goal because you have to reschedule, you may be out of balance.
  • If you have a propensity to “over do it” in situations, now is the time to establish clear guidelines and identify warning signs that might come up and decide how you will mitigate them.

Avoiding exercise addiction is about balance, awareness, and compassion. Without those components, you could possibly play into patterns that lead to self-destructive and judgmental thoughts and the behaviors that may follow. Remember that the reason you decided to start the workout regimen was to have a more balanced life.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Milagros Saxon, PhD, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jules

    January 24th, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    I have found myself from time to time, ok a lot of the time, beating myself up when I have to miss a workout because of something that is beyond my control. I take the advice of scheduling my workouts to the extreme because I feel horrible when I miss them. I know that this is something that is hard for many people to understand because I have friends who would rather chew off their own hand than have to exercise. But for me it has become such a habit and such a part of my daily life that I really enjoy that to miss one is hard on me.

  • WJ

    January 24th, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    My former boyfriend used to be addicted to exercising.In fact he used to make up excuses to avoid other things and eventually set up a gym at his place.This led to him totally neglecting his social life and eventually to us breaking up.Exercise addiction can be nasty and very unhealthy.

  • Ivy

    January 25th, 2012 at 1:19 PM

    I wonder if they become actually addicted to the exercise or if they are hyper fixating on the results that they think that all of this exercise will bring to them. Maybe they have this skewed perception of losing weight or whatever, yet they completely lose any sense of being healthy because of this obsession that develops.

  • St. Pete

    October 1st, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    this workout is for the chest, triceps and even involve your back and shoulder muscles, dips are alternative to developing chest and triceps muscles….sn3t

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