How Do You Know You're Exercising Too Much? How Exercise Became My Addiction

Most nights, I just lie in bed, trying to escape myself. A constantly streaming video loop of everything I ate and how much I exercised won’t stop playing in my mind. I pause. I breathe. I try to relax.

Then, inevitably, another video loop — of everything I want to eat tomorrow, how I will fit in every possible moment of exercise, and how the activities of the day might interfere — starts playing in my head.
 
I pause. I breathe. I roll to the other side, my overtaxed body as uncomfortable to be in as my overtaxed mind, and I try to relax once again.
I fantasize about not caring anymore, of being able to sleep in without guilt or spend a day on the couch without panicking about when I'll fit in my next workout. I wonder what it would be like to “have the problem” of not wanting to go to the gym. It still feels very far away. 
When I’m not exercising — even if I’ve already exercised that day — I’m consumed with anxiety about my next workout. Will something come up and make me miss the gym? What about holidays when the gym is closed? How can I sneak in just one more long walk?  

It has spread like a virus over the last few years: an extra walk here, another DVD there. Minutes at the gym have morphed into hours. Everything else in my day has become organized around my workouts, and taking a day off because I'm sick or injured is never an option. 

Exercise has become the disease, even as it disguises itself as the cure. If I don’t have it as an escape, then what’s left to hold me together? Working out feels like the only way to calm myself, but as soon as I leave the gym or finish a walk, the whole cycle starts over again.

Over the years, my family has stepped in. I’ve seen a therapist, and I was even in treatment a few years ago. As you might have guessed by now, I also suffer from depression and OCD. I’m a highly-educated adult woman who knows the risks of this behavior, and yet, I can't stop.

Over-exercise is a unique disease. Anorexics are often told to their face that they’re too skinny and that “real women have curves,” as if being a woman can be defined by a size on a chart. But over-exercising is the eating disorder everyone wishes they had. 

As a society, we're told over and over that it's essential to exercise, which it is — in moderation. That's what makes it so easy to keep this addiction a secret; it's not as obvious as walking around under the influence, or lighting up a cigarette. You can continue to feed your addiction under the guise that you're just being "healthy," even when you're anything but. I not only have to fight the obsessive thoughts in my head but also the “more exercise is better” messages I receive from the media every day.
 
What those who praise or judge me don’t know is that this disorder has never been about vanity. I hate how I look because I’m underweight. I wish I was strong and muscular — but I'm not. All I want is my next high, and each workout is based off one thing: fear of being alone in my head, of having my safety net taken away.
 
It’s not that I don’t want to break the cycle. But for me, exercise has become a drug. It is a way to cope with everything else going on and numb out the pain I might feel, and it truly is an addiction, one I cancel plans over just to get my fix. 
 
I fantasize about not caring anymore, of being able to sleep in without guilt or spend a day on the couch without panicking about when I'll fit in my next workout. I wonder what it would be like to “have the problem” of not wanting to go to the gym. It still feels very far away. 
 
Yet I know I can be stronger than this. I can pause, I can breathe, I can break the cycle I'm in. I can tell my story so as to give up a piece of the secrecy that keeps me sick.
 
Because no, you don't want my problem. And finally, neither do I.

Editor's Note: If you are struggling with an exercise addiction or an eating disorder, help and treatment is available. You are not alone. 

Image: Crossfit Fever/Flickr

Must Reads