Working out every single day is good for you, right? For some women, it can become an unhealthy obsession.
By Ginny Graves,
Tara Fuller got hooked when she joined a gym in her early 20s. “I loved the feeling of pushing myself hard, and I was thrilled with the results,” says the 27-year-old New York City brand strategist. “People were always giving me compliments and telling me how fit I looked.” For the self-described type A, who thrived on control, her new hobby was intoxicating. She started hitting the gym twice a day: Spinning before work, Pilates or yoga after, even back-to-back classes. She also started training for half marathons, sprint triathlons — always pushing, pushing, pushing. “I was getting insanely tired, but I fought through it by drinking tons of coffee and cutting back on other activities, like going out,” she says. “My friends started calling me a hermit.”
Stories like Fuller’s are surprisingly common. She’s part of a growing tribe racing from one exercise class to the next, racking up two or even three major workouts a day. This gung-ho movement is healthy in many respects. “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your body and mind,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “I work out every day, and I encourage my patients to do so as well. If they have the time and money to go twice a day, I’m all for it. But,” he warns, “it is possible to take exercise too far.”
Beyond the obvious downsides of overdoing it, such as fatigue and injury, there’s an even more troubling problem. Spending hours at the gym can be a sign of exercise dependence, distinguished by the classic signs of addiction: needing to do more to get the same effect, doing more than you plan to, having trouble cutting back and feeling symptoms of withdrawal, like depression and irritability, when you skip a day or two. It’s not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but some mental health professionals now believe that exercise dependence is a form of behavioral addiction, like gambling.
SELF talked to 18 fitness instructors around the country, all of whom reported that they’ve seen a striking uptick in the number of women, many in their 20s, hopscotching from boot camp to Zumba to Spin to pilates. Mary Biggins, founder of ClassPass, a service that allows members to take classes at a variety of clubs in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, reports that 15 percent of subscribers double-dip. At some exercise studios it’s practically the norm. Donyel Cerceo, marketing director at Merritt Athletic Clubs, a 10-club chain in the Baltimore area, says: “At some locations we have a 6 p.m. cycle class, a 7 p.m. BodyPump and an 8 p.m. core class, and a lot of women take all three.”
Why this rise in over-the-top exercising? “There’s more pressure on women than ever to look great — to try to attain the kind of thin, fit bodies they idolize in celebrities, models or athletes,” says Kristina Marie Berg, a STAGES Indoor Cycling instructor in Boulder, Colorado. Some women get into a competitive mind-set where they’ll do almost anything to achieve that goal. Intensity is in, spurred by everything from fitspo photos to super-toned women competing on shows like American Ninja Warrior. And social media fuels it, too. Witness the #2aday hashtag on Twitter. “Now that we can publicly brag about our workouts, women are wearing their badassness like a badge of honor,” says Tamara Grand, a personal trainer in Port Moody, British Columbia. As Vanessa Hudgens, who’s been known to take back-to-back SoulCycle classes, raved to E! Online last year: “There’s no such thing as too much exercise!”
Of course, plenty of people, including many competitive athletes, can handle an intense routine without a problem, says Marilyn Freimuth, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Addicted? Recognizing Destructive Behavior Before It’s Too Late. But in some women, double-dipping is the socially acceptable precursor to (and cover for) exercise addiction. “The real crux of the issue is why you’re exercising, not the number of hours you spend,” says Freimuth. “For some, working out two hours a day can be a sign of a problem, whereas others can do twice that and be fine. As with other addictions, there are psychological and biological components.”
Even if you’re not an exercise addict, there can be financial repercussions. Jocelyn Levy spends a lot of money on her classes — about $1,400 each month — though she says it’s worth it. The 29-year-old owner of a PR firm in New York City takes 11-plus classes every week at trendy fitness studios, doubling up on workouts on at least four of those days. Her intense schedule of indoor cycling, barre classes, pilates and cardio dance burns 5,000 to 7,000 calories a week (according to her Nike+ FuelBand) and a lot of cash. “It’s a substantial part of my income,” she says. “So I have to make sacrifices, like skipping nice dinners and evenings out. But I’m spending the money for a reason. Classes motivate me.”
The Ultimate Stress Buster
You don’t have to be a hard-core athlete to have experienced the postworkout buzz. Aerobic activity in particular triggers the release of mood-boosting, anxiety-calming neurotransmitters, like endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids (similar to the active ingredient in marijuana), says John Ratey, M.D., clinical associate professor at Harvard Medical School. That in itself may be enough to trigger dependence, especially in those who are prone to feeling depressed, says Freimuth.
Using exercise to cope with an emotional problem, whether it’s depression, low self-esteem or anxiety, is a risk factor for dependence. “People don’t skip social events or continue to exercise through injuries because they love physical activity so much. They do it because exercise gives them something they need emotionally and helps them escape unpleasant feelings,” she says. “Addiction is most likely to take hold when working out is your primary means of coping with internal distress or making yourself feel good.”
That rings true for Janae Jacobs, 28, a blogger in Orem, Utah. In 2012, her marriage was falling apart and she was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and anxiety, so she ramped up her running, the thing she’d learned to rely on to make herself feel better. “It was my only emotional outlet and the one thing I felt I could control, so I pushed myself hard,” she says. She signed up for a half marathon, and when she started having pain in her thighs, she told herself it was a consequence of running 60 miles a week. Still, the ache worried her, especially when it got so bad it started waking her up at night. But X-rays didn’t reveal any problems, so she continued to train and even completed the 13.1-mile race. “It was agony, but I pushed myself through,” she says.
Afterward, she hobbled to another doctor, who diagnosed her with stress fractures in both femurs. “I was horrified,” she says. “I’d been competitive about my running for a while, but this went beyond competitiveness. I wasn’t paying attention to my body or eating enough to fuel that many miles. I was abusing exercise.” She took three months off, gaining some weight and a lot of perspective. “I think my addiction was 50 percent endorphins, 50 percent wanting to be thin,” she says. “I still exercise for the high, because it helps me keep a positive perspective. But I take a day or two off every week, and I’ve let go of the need to be thin. I put on 20 pounds, and I’ve never felt healthier.”
The Virtuous Obsession
Among the array of addictions, exercise may be unique in one respect: It’s almost universally viewed as virtuous. Drink or smoke too much, and friends start to worry. Exercise too much, and everyone envies your dedication, which means it’s easy to conceal the problem — even from yourself. That’s particularly true for competitive athletes and those in the fitness business, who have the perfect front for their habit. When Krista Stryker, 27, a personal trainer in San Francisco, became certified five years ago, she started working out for two-plus hours a day on top of training clients. “I told myself I was getting fit and healthy for my job, and everyone around me was doing the same thing, so it seemed normal,” she says. “But for me it was driven by this feeling of inadequacy. I felt like I could never do enough or be fit enough. I spent at least half of every day either exercising or thinking about when and how I was going to exercise. I wouldn’t allow myself to take a day off, not when I had pulled muscles, not when I was so sore I could barely walk upstairs — not even when I had a rib pop out of place during a workout.”
She didn’t recognize how fanatical she’d become until she decided to try high intensity interval training, an approach that alternates short bursts of all-out effort with quick bouts of recovery. “After a few weeks, I had this huge realization,” she says. “Because the workouts were just 15 to 30 minutes a day, it freed up my time, and I suddenly realized how much I’d been missing by focusing obsessively on exercise. By working out less, I had more energy and started feeling emotionally healthier. It was a huge relief. Now, exercise is fun again.”
While no one knows for sure how many gymgoers have a less-than-healthy relationship with exercise, several studies estimate that 3 to 5 percent may have a kind of addiction; other research suggests the figure is considerably higher. That’s why Jodi Rubin, a psychotherapist in New York City, created Destructively Fit, a program to train health club employees to spot members who might need help. She launched the program in 2012, partly because she was concerned that the current obsession with fitness could be dangerous for those at risk for exercise dependence and eating disorders. “I get calls from gyms saying, ‘We have women coming in every day and going from class to class to class, and we’re not sure it’s healthy,’” she says. “Fitness professionals want to be able to identify it and address it, but they don’t know how.” She says that if someone is exercising multiple times a day or increasing intensity to the point of tears, exhaustion or injury, that’s a red flag.
Exercise dependence often does go hand in hand with eating disorders, especially for women, notes Marci Goolsby, M.D., a physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Women’s Sports Medicine Center who specializes in nutrition and exercise balance. “Some women exercise to purge calories. If they eat 500 calories for dinner, they won’t get off the treadmill ’til they’ve burned that much or more,” she says. It’s fine to use fitness as part of a weight loss or maintenance effort, she explains. But that shouldn’t be the only reason you go to the gym.
Any woman who’s letting exercise take over her life, no matter why, may need some help. It all caught up with Fuller, the 27-year-old brand strategist who’d initially loved her tough workouts so much, when she suffered a herniated disk. That set off an excruciating bout of sciatica that forced her to take a few months off. Then the floodgates opened. “I realized I had feelings I’d never been able to talk about. Instead of dealing with them, I’d been self-medicating with exercise, just like some people do with drugs or alcohol,” she says. “Now I’ve spent a lot of time opening up to friends, writing in my journal and meditating. I work out four or five days a week and do yoga instead of hard-core aerobics and strength training. And I rarely push myself to the limit. Slowly but surely, I’m learning the wisdom of moderation.”
Are You Overdoing Exercise?
If you routinely take two or three classes a day, it’s possible, says Jodi Rubin, a psychotherapist in New York City. “Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel if I don’t take the second class — or skip a day or two altogether?’” If it makes you feel anxious, stressed, depressed, guilty or bad about yourself, if you have to work out twice as hard the next day to make up for it, or if you can’t back off when you’re tired, sick or injured, it’s a sign of a problem. Consider these questions, too: Are you excited to go to class? Do you leave with a smile, feeling strong, healthy, fit and accomplished? Are you having fun? “If you’re training for an event, it’s not always enjoyable, but every recreational athlete should take pleasure in her routine,” Rubin says. “If you dread exercise but push yourself to go hard and long anyway, you need to reevaluate.”
How to Go Hard — But Not Too Hard
- Pick complementary workouts. If you double up, take a cardio class plus a strength class, or boot camp followed by gentle yoga or tai chi, says Julie King, a fitness instructor at the Northwest Community Healthcare Wellness Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Doing two similar workouts back-to-back can put too much stress on your body.
- Skip a day or two every week. Rest is a crucial part of fitness, says Marci Goolsby, M.D., a physician in the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Women’s Sports Medicine Center. “Exercise wears down the body, and it needs time to recover.”
- Eat enough for fuel. “The more you exercise, the more calories you need,” Dr. Goolsby says. “If you’re eating too little, it weakens your bones and puts you at risk for stress fractures.”
- Stop when you’re tired or in pain. Listen to your body, Dr. Goolsby says. “Pain is an indication something is wrong. Also, when you’re tired, your form falls apart, increasing the risk for injury.”
photos: Andrew Myers
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