It has been my personal experience that “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing” (Mantra #6) and this applies to exercise as much (if not more) as anything else.
The following article is geared toward men but applies to women as well…
For the vast majority of us, exercise is a good that we don’t get enough of. But a small minority of perfectionist athletes are compulsive exercisers. Some call them exercise addicts, or obsessives, or “obligatory athletes.” As many as 10% of high-performance runners, and possibly an equal number of body builders, have an exercise addiction.
You can distinguish healthy enthusiasts from exercise addicts by the following trait, says Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England: “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives round their exercise.”
Excessive exercise, like extreme diets, attracts people who feel an extreme need for control in their lives. Like weight reduction, improved athletic performance is readily observable, Cockerill says.
Treatment for exercise addiction often includes encouraging patients to take up more social forms of exercise such as yoga and cycling instead of the solitary pursuits of running or going to the gym, which can be breeding grounds for perfectionist pathology.
They’re an unusually high performing, smart bunch, with an average of 18 years of education.
“These people are locked into their regimes. They eat one meal a day, or eat exactly the same foods at each meal every day. They measure everything — their caloric intake, how much starch they’re eating. They’re overly focused and overly serious about sports and it messes up the rest of their lives. There isn’t time or room for relationships. They stop going to parties. They go to bed at eight so they can get up at four and run. There are divorces.” – Psychiatrist Alayna Yates, MD, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii
It stands to reason that the best athletes would be exercise addicts — since their professional lives revolve around athleticism. But the best runners may or may not be the obligatory ones.
There seem to be as many definitions of addiction as there are addicts; but one thing they have in common is the repetition of a behavior past the point where it becomes self-injurious. In exercise, this means, quite literally, refusing to stop or even limit your regime when you’ve got an injury.
Addiction can also mean exercising at inappropriate times. “I have people who run in thunderstorms. I had a patient once who had to have a run while his wife was in labor,” says Yates
Still, it can be hard to diagnose exercise addiction in professional athletes: “I’ll say, ‘You have an Achilles injury. Why are you still running on that tendon?’” says Debbie Rhea, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University. “And they’ll say, ‘I can’t stop because I’m injured. This is my job.’”
Society’s Role in Exercise Addiction
Some over-exercisers have what psychiatrist Diane A. Klein, MD, of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, calls a “primary dependence.” Others are anorexics who run to help complete their obsession with food and weight control.
To be sure, the population of exercise addicts is a bit different from that of, say, cocaine addicts. Exercise, like being thin, is highly reinforced by society, says Klein. “So for people driven to achieve, to be perfectionists, and to be in optimal health, it’s kind of understandable that they become excessive.”
Treatment for exercise addiction, say the therapists, involves getting the athletes to see they have a problem and that change is necessary. “You have to give them a sense of worth. Maybe they never had a good self-concept. Is it something that happened in childhood? Maybe there’s addiction in the family,” – Rhea works with male body builders who are preoccupied with their looks.
Some runners who run into trouble start by becoming addicted to “runner’s high,” a feeling of elation caused by the release of hormones. Yates says, “There’s a change in the psyche — they talk about almost out-of-body experiences, feeling as if they can change the world.” But eventually, the adrenal gland burns out and they crash. “What was once gratifying becomes painful and controlling. It becomes a bad thing, but they can’t get out of it.”
Yates tells her patients that “dependency is not a horrible thing. The expectations we have for ourselves and others may be off base. Autonomy is good. But when it gets carried too far, it can be unhealthy.” In other words, psychotherapy may be part of the path to getting off the treadmill. On the other hand, it may not be necessary in all cases.
For many athletes, obsessive exercising is a self-limiting condition, says Cockerill. “They tend to reduce their involvement to sensible levels themselves over time when their life, generally, is on an even keel.”