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Confessions of a Compulsive Over-Exerciser

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:19pm

Most people have a hard time getting to the gym. I have a hard time getting out of the gym. My love of everything fitness has become my defining personality trait. That is often what people know me for. It doesn't help either that my hobbies include reading about fitness, writing about fitness and talking about fitness. And don't forget, you know, actually exercising.

In a country where two-thirds of the population are overweight and two-thirds of the starlets are underweight, someone who is very committed to their exercise regimen is often seen as smart, dedicated, energetic and principled. Which I hope that I am. However, I am also crazy.

That is not a word my therapist likes - and I mention my therapist here at the outset so all of you will relax in the knowledge that I am "getting help" - but crazy is a pretty apt descriptor of my mental state. I am a person of extremes. A perfectionist. A black and white thinker. Type A personality. Call it what you want but what it all boils down to is being bad at balance.

This pattern of extreme positions has been replayed many times over in my life. My passion is often what draws people to me and my fanaticism is what drives them away. With me, it's two sides of the same coin. On one hand I was a straight A student, valedictorian of every graduating class I've ever been in. On the other hand I can be a ferocious know-it-all despite my glaring ignorance in many subjects. And then there's the food - on one hand I am very educated on health and healthy eating. On the other hand I was so eating disordered that we had to make up a name to accurately describe all my neuroses about food. All of which brings me to exercise. First anorexic, then orthorexic and now - ta da! - compulsive exerciser.

How Did I Get Here?
So, besides being just generally compulsive, how does one become an exercise addict? Well, it's quite simple. I've talked about the reasons why I exercise. Feeling strong, safe and sane are very compelling - and legitimate - reasons to seek out that endorphin rush. But other motivations have crept in over the years. I believe it is these other motivators, primarily based out of fear, that have pushed me over the edge from "girl who likes to exercise" to "crazy girl who over exercises."

Fear of hunger. Exercise is my permission to eat. I'm not actively eating disordered now but part of that is because I feel like I've earned the right to eat because I've exercised. No exercise? My mind says no food. I don't starve but that's only because I never miss a workout. In addition, I am terrified of feeling hungry. I am so afraid that if I just let myself eat, I'll eat anything and everything and I'll never stop. But as long as I'm exercising, I'm not hungry. (What happens in the 30 minutes after a really intense workout is an entirely different story.)

Fear of fat. I am particularly ashamed of this feeling because it shows how entirely I've bought into our society's perception of fat = evil. Even though rationally I know it isn't true, it still lurks in the back of my mind. See, I think that there are people for whom being thin is a natural state and then there are people for whom being thin takes a lot of hard work and constant vigilance. I am of the latter variety. Whether or not it is true, I believe that I hold my body at a weight that it would not choose, if left to its own devices.

Fear of anxiety. This is probably the reason that holds the most power for me. I use exercise as my stress reliever. I'm a very anxious person and exercise, intense exercise, is the quickest way to feel better. Unfortunately a lot of anxiety requires a lot of exercise to burn it off. Those of you who have been through Psych 101 will recognize this as the classic OCD cycle.

Fear of myself. I often tell people that the only time I like me is when I'm working out. It is a sad statement and I am working on changing that but at the moment it is true. The only time when I am not harshly critical of my body is when I'm exercising. There - in the gym - is when I am proud of it for everything it can do, when I stop punishing it for feeling hungry or for my chubby thighs, when I allow it to feel sexy and smart. If only I could hold onto that feeling but it fades as quickly as my runner's high.

It's addicting. Anyone who has hit that place of euphoria that you can only reach from intense physical exertion knows that your first thought afterward is "How can I get back here?" I'm an adrenaline junkie.

The Problem With Compulsive Exercise
Despite its reputation for being the disorder that everyone wishes they had, there are many downsides to compulsive exercise. First, it's very time consuming. If left on my own, I'll work out upwards of 5 or 6 hours a day. However, thanks to my children, I am never left on my own which becomes self limiting. Second, it often has the opposite of the desired effect. I first took up running to lose weight. But I've discovered that if I run too much, I actually gain weight. Third, I've experienced many negative health effects resulting from over training like amennorhea, a suppressed thyroid and a myriad of smaller injuries. The greatest toll however is on my mind. By making my self worth dependent on something so capricious as a good workout, I've set myself up for a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows.

Learning To Balance
I have to admit, I was nervous to write about this. In a way, I feel like it reduces my credibility. But in the end I realized - from many of your comments, even - that anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog for more than a week already knows this about me. And you still love me, or at least tolerate me quietly. So it's probably going to be all right.

By this point, I am sure some of you are nodding your heads as well. I know I'm not the only compulsive exerciser out there. In fact, I have gotten several e-mails to that effect. So what's an over exerciser to do? For me, being aware of my proclivity for over doing it has led me to set up some checks and balances. The therapist is check number one. She's great at reining me in. I encourage everyone, compulsive exerciser or no, to get a good therapist. Check two is, as you may have already noticed, writing the limits into my Experiments. It took me a while to figure this one out but now every 3rd Experiment or so, I try and pick something that will force me - like last month - to intentionally take it down. For you guys that means actually scheduling breaks for yourself and then not letting anything guilt you into not taking them. Check three is getting extra support when you need it. My Gym Buddies know how I am and are there for me when they can see I'm getting too frenetic. I also have a cadre of qualified professionals like a psychiatrist and an eating-disorder specialist that I can meet with every once in a while when I need extra help. Lastly, humor goes a long way. I try to never take myself too seriously. Even in this.

Life is messy. I wish I could tell you that I've got it all figured out - that I've got Shawn Johnson balance skills. But I don't. I do however believe that God can help turn our weaknesses into strengths and I am enjoying the process. Yes, sometimes I stumble. But I also have moments of joy every day. I love what I do. And I'm learning. Sometimes that's all you can ask of yourself.

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