Let that line sink in for more than the initial laugh-inducing 10 seconds. Yes, exercise addiction exists. It even has a wiki page. In my experience it is a potentially dangerous, scary disorder that affects so many more people than you would imagine. It's an insidious voice that chips quietly but consistently away at your self-confidence, a compulsion that grows faster and faster until you enter the point where there is no turning back. I write this post for a few reasons. Firstly, I hate not exercising and I am still very much addicted to it. I miss it. Maybe this is a form of therapy. Secondly, I hope that if you recognise some of yourself in this story you can get it in check before it does the damage it did to me. It's a dangerous path to tread if you're not prepared. The majority of people are strong enough to know when to say no. If you're not, take heed. Thirdly, if you're going through the same thing as me, I want to give you hope and reassurance. It does get better and it can be beaten. Just not by me, yet.
Like most addictions, we do it to feel better. Unlike most addictions, exercise is actually GOOD for you. In fact it's fantastic, everyone should exercise within their limits as much as they can, because the health benefits are ample and wide reaching. My story began when I was very young. My dad got me in to running around the age of 7, and up until the age of 17 I ran almost every night. Fitness was fun, running was a challenge and it was something that made me feel great. I remember dad saying to mum once after a run 'I think there must be some primal need in humans for running. I feel so good after a run'. He was experiencing the 'runner's high'. A wonderful state of being where the brain is flooded with endorphins upon the ceasement of a satisfying exercise session.
I quit running for many years. From 17 to 22 I had no need for it, I'd burnt myself out. I was smoking and drinking, eating very poorly, but blissfully uncaring about fitness, muscle size, stomach size, heart rates, Vo2 max's etc etc. Sure, I put on a bit of weight. But I had a girlfriend, I was still fit enough to play cricket, and I really had no desire to strap the boots on and sweat up a hill, or lift. I dabbled occasionally in sit ups and push ups, but I was always so bad at them that these spurts of inspiration and motivation never lasted long enough for a six pack to emerge from behind the keg.
On a fateful day in 2011 a therapist I had been seeing to deal with a few problems suggested it as a way to manage my symptoms without medication. It'd been so long since I'd made a serious attempt, and I was still smoking, but I figured I'd give it a go again. Now you're probably remembering your first foray in to this realm; a dreaded fortnight of chafing, blisters, sweat, tears and a horrid new feeling in your lungs that you're about to die. The first 2 weeks are always the hardest. Luckily, not so for me. I was swept up once again in the euphoria of it. The achievement, tracking my progress, the feeling of pushing your body to its limit, and the wonderful rush of drugs that my brain delivered everytime I performed well. It was a wonderful honeymoon, so good in fact that I was able to quit smoking cold turkey and, within 6 months was able to completely quit alcohol. Brilliant.
Throughout 2011 and in to 2012 I added the gym to my regime. Never having been a particularly blessed man genetics-wise, I was very keen to pack a bit of muscle on my oddly shaped frame. I always had giant calves, like big slabs of meat hanging off my bones, but my upper body looked more like an uncooked spatchcock. Skinny, flimsy, floppy. Working out was like adding cocaine to heroin. It doubled my endorphin hit, doubled my euphoria, doubled my self-esteem. Everything was going great guns, and I actually HAD guns to speak of.
As someone who, excuse the pun, tends to run away from his problems, jogging and the gym became a sanctuary away from the intrusive thoughts, anxieties and low moods. It was my buffer against the world, and as the world became a scarier place I felt the need to continually strengthen that buffer. I'd found the perfect cure for mental illness! All previous attempts had failed. Alcohol had created a lifetime of problems: ruined friendships, ruined relationships and possibly sparked one girl to put some form of voodoo curse on me. It had also jeopardised my health and wellbeing, and my relationships with my family. Medications had only worked intermittently, and generally the bad outweighed the good in terms of side effects. Exercise was so far removed from the usual stereotypical coping mechanisms. You feel good doing it, you feel good after doing it, and the only hangover is sore muscles. You look great, you feel great, you're healthy and everyone compliments you.
It is this realisation that can be the most dangerous. In mid 2012 I stepped my regime up. I'd injured myself earlier in the year due to a lack of stretching, and running with my injury aggravated it to the point I could no longer walk. I had to stop. So I cycled instead. Once I got back in to running, it quickly escalated. 5km runs became 10, 10 became 15, 15 became 20. I only took 1 day a week off, the day I played cricket. The rest was devoted to pounding pavement and pumping guns. I added stretching to my regime as well, and at the height of my addiction I was devoting around 5 hours a day to exercise. Every day would be the same. I'd wake up, have a black coffee, go for a run, usually around 90 minutes but always over an hour. Then I'd stretch for an hour in my warm down. Then at night I'd work out at home in my gym for an hour, followed by another hour of stretching, followed by half an hour of either extra ab work or extra leg strengthening work. 5 hours a day, 6 days a week. My results became the stuff of legend. I'd use an app to track my runs, and post up pictures of my weekly stats. The kilometres racked up. 40 in a week was good, then it became 50, 60. One week at the peak of my powers I managed a 90km week, as well as not missing a single day of gym work and playing 2 full days of cricket on the weekend.
I never acknowledged a problem during these stages. People saw it as crazy, but my justification was always 'there are people out there running 160kms a week! I'm just an amateur'. And with exercise, the more the better, especially in the eyes of your peers. Having a six pack, having a good body, being the fittest bloke at your sports club, all of these things feed this hulking beast that lives inside you, that grows infinitely stronger with every run, every compliment, every article you read on the brilliance of exercise. You don't care that you're avoiding going out with friends because you need to get a work out in. You're just dedicated.
Some warning markers for me were:
1. I had members tickets to the cricket one day, and to get the best seats we needed to be there around 7am. So I woke up at 4:30 and went for a 10km run.
2. Playing cricket one day, I was in the outfield praying we would lose quickly so I would get home in time to go for a run before I had to start my weights routine.
3. I could NEVER walk. My legs were always in constant, agonising pain. Stairs were brutal. Each run became harder and harder. Instead of hurting for the first km, it'd be the first 2. Then the first 5. Eventually my body screamed at me to stop, but I'd just scream back louder and keep running.
4. I thought about exercise 24/7. I was always contemplating my next work out, planning it in my head. Planning a running route, calculating how many kms I had run that week and how many I would need to get to my target. Working out how long ago I had done my arms and whether it was too early to do them again.
5. I started weighing myself every single day, then more than once a day. The numbers were falling, my muscles were getting more defined.
6. I lived in constant fear of injury, yet paradoxically I would run and lift through incredible pain.
7. I couldn't miss a work out. Period. No matter what was going on, I had to get home to lift or to run. I couldn't go away on holidays unless I could run and there was a gym nearby.
8. The longer a day went on when I hadn't had my run, the worse I felt. Racing thoughts, panic attacks.
The weight began to fall off. From a high of 85 I dropped steadily down to below 70 in an 8 month period. I was able to eat whatever in the world I liked. I would eat litres of ice cream and yogurt a night, tubs of hommus, kilos of chicken schnitzel drenched in cheese. I developed a binge eating problem that resulted in me only eating once the sun went down. My body began to eat itself, began to implode. By November 2012, my life was entirely ruled by exercise.
One morning in December I made the decision. I knew it was coming. For weeks things had deteriorated. I hated running. Despised it, obsessed over it, thought of nothing else. I ran as soon as I woke up because I couldn't bare to think about it all day. I'd finish, and relief would flood over me knowing I wouldn't have to put myself through that for another 24 hours. I was pushing myself harder and harder. 12kms was the absolute minimum for a run. If I didn't achieve that in less than an hour, I'd feel this overwhelming sense of failure that would sit with me till I rectified it. That morning, I sat on a chair at 7am listening to David Bowie's Heathen. And I sobbed. Sobbed like I hadn't for years. My dad came down and asked what was wrong, and I told him I just couldn't do it anymore. I felt completely trapped, I was so strongly compulsed to run yet my body was so weak and tired that I'd be crying in pain every step. I spoke to my psychologist, and that is when we decided to cease exercise indefinitely. It was January 2013.
So what have I learned in my year off? I guess the best lesson has been the strength and power that addiction can wield. Despite swearing physical activity off until I return to a healthy weight and a healthy mindset, I have dabbled many times. I began running again around May, but quickly gave that up as my weight dropped alarmingly. I then attempted for 2 weeks to get back in to the gym, but I wasn't progressing because of the weight I had originally lost. I couldn't put it back on. As I write this, I am thinking about what incidental activity I can engage in tomorrow.
Life for an exercise addict is hard. For one in recovery, it's damn near impossible. The world is full of experts telling us to eat healthy, to manage portion sizes, and above all else to involve ourselves in physical activity. There is not a single mention in press or amongst friends or strangers or in any circumstance of the dangers of addiction. It's like trying to recover from alcohol whilst everyone around you drinks and the government publishes public service announcements encouraging you to drink. Your nose is rubbed in it every single day. Ads, friends, family. My dad is chronic for it, he runs incessantly. My mates all talk about their work outs and their best times and how far they managed on the weekend.
It can also breed a much more sinister beast. An eating disorder. I won't delve in the murky underworld that houses this horrid classification, but it's a dangerous path to tread. More so than the injuries, the ruined social life, the ruined work life and the mental anguish that being addicted to exercise can bring, if it develops in to an eating disorder that is when the real, life-threatening danger becomes apparent.
I don't write this to scare you. I would say 90% of people who engage in physical activity do so in a safe and extremely beneficial way. Exercise is brilliant, it truly is. If you can stomach it, do it to your hearts content. Just be aware of the warning signs that things might be developing further. And if you're like me or you can relate to my story at any stage, I can't promise you like I did at the start that it will get better because I haven't experienced that. My mind is still disordered, it believes that as soon as I achieve a certain goal weight we will dust off the barbells and get back to work. I just have to keep tricking it I guess.