12 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Are you a Cardioholic – Part 2 – the Signs of Addiction

Following on from last week’s post – I don’t want to give the idea that I see lots of exercise as a negative.  I am all for lots of exercise, just as I am all for healthy eating.  However, becoming obsessed with what you do and do not eat, or becoming obsessed with exercising are still obsessions, still addictions.

  “…it can become a compulsion, an obsessive need to work out multiple times a day, hours at a time at the  utmost intensity your body allows”, says Susan Moore, the program coordinator at the Renfrew Center, a treatment facility  for eating disorders in Philadelphia.

It is interesting that exercise dependency is studied alongside eating disorders.  Often the two go hand in hand – the need to control one’s food intake with the need to exercise almost incessantly  – with exercise giving the person a way to get rid of the extra 2 calories that might have been inadvertently consumed.

It all starts innocently enough and with a positive objective – to get in shape.  For women who have crossed the line into addiction, they report that the enthusiasm quickly morphed into unhealthy obsession.  The training runs to get in shape for the half-marathon are enjoyable at first and then you double the recommended training mileage;  or after seeing positive results with 3 to 4 gym workouts per week, the routine becomes two long sessions per day in an attempt to lose the last stubborn 5 lbs of weight. 

At at some point the fun turns to fear  –  if even one day is missed you’ll lose the fitness gains and maybe gain back some weight.  It snowballs from there.

How about Boomers  –  we hear a lot about encouraging older folk to get off the sofa and do some walking, yoga etc.  I have not seen studies, but my guess is that many/most of the people over 45, are into exercising in a big way.  There is much more awareness of the health benefits of exercise, and most important, this group of people will do anything to look and feel younger.  The yen to be thin and fit is not limited to people under 30; Boomers are just as susceptible to the advertising as are younger men and women.   Some also want to prove they can still do what they did in their 20’s and 30’s even though their bodies can no longer keep up with such grueling workouts.

That push-it-to-the-limit mentality carries over into other areas of life.  Sari Shepphird, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, says that over-exercisers typically set high standards of performance in their careers: “perfectionism is a key factor in determining who develops exercise dependency.”

And as Boomers, if we were driven in our careers and family lives, and now have fewer responsibilities in those areas, exercise might well become the next target of this perfectionism. 

Often it is not the duration of the exercise that is the concern.  Rather it is the attitude toward the exercise that is of concern.  

Pop Quiz:

  • Do your workouts take precedence over family events?
  • Do you feel “withdrawal” symptoms if you cannot get your “fix”…. Do your workout?
  • Are dinner dates postponed in favor of a trip to the gym?
  • You are sick, but still must work out?
  • Have you ever felt panicky when planning a trip because you thought it might cause you to miss a workout?
  • You have never said “tonight I need sleep more than a workout”?

If you answered Yes to 2 or more questions the possibility of exercise dependency is high.

Recent research for Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, indicates that the endorphins released during exercise stimulate the same region in the brain as opiates.  The addiction is thus very real  – and the runners’ high helps keep exercisers coming back for more.

At this point you are probably thinking – “OK so it is an addiction, but at least it is a healthy one.  And if older women have this as an addiction it is loads better than sitting on the sofa watching TV or cruising the home shopping channel.” 

In the next blog post we’ll look at what the risks are from this type of behavior – because there are risks beyond alienating friends and family.

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