Fitness expert and recovering self- confessed exercise addict Katherine Schreiber earlier this year released The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, a book co-authored with Heather Hausenblas, in which fitness fanatics share their woes. “The moment I became cognizant of my body,” writes Schreiber, “I wanted to change it.”
According to one US study, 3% of regular gym attendees are thought to have some form of exercise addiction, more than doubling for sport scientist students, with upwards of 50% of long distance runners and triathletes hooked on their craft. A widely-respected study published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions came up with a six-point list to assess one’s levels of overexertion, urging subjects to examine if exercise is the most important thing in life, if it causes conflict with loved ones or if the skipping of that run or routine leads to moodiness or irritability. “Defining addictive behaviours, in general, is complex,” the authors write. “More recently a number of behaviours have been viewed as potentially addictive such as exercise, sex, gambling video games, and internet use… Exercise is considered to be both physically and psychologically beneficial to health. However, a few people may exercise without limits and to do damaging degrees, propelling researchers to agree that exercise could, in some cases, be harmful.”
Exercise is considered to be both physically and psychologically beneficial to health.
This writer may just have been such a case. Having completed the Auckland Quarter Marathon of 2013, I decided to set my sights on a full one the following year and began training hard, running, as I was to later agonisingly learn, far too far, far too quickly. Those late night forays when the tarmac became mine alone to pound as my mind cleared and the sky faded to black became an almost meditative, transcendent experience and I was well and truly hooked.
A week before the Rotorua Marathon I developed a niggle in my groin – a strain, I supposed – and took to resting before the big race. An hour into the event the injury became too painful and I limped around the remainder of the route in just under seven hours. A couple of weeks later, still limping and having stubbornly ignored the pleas of friends and colleagues to visit a physiotherapist (my line remained resolute: “It’s just a strain!”), I tripped and broke my hip. Or broke my hip and tripped. I don’t recall the order. Either way, I wound up on the pavement in pain that can only be described as absolute. That “strain”, as it turns out, was a ticking time bomb, a stress fracture, a common affliction to long distance runners and one generally rather easily fixed with good rest. Hindsight is a cruel and wonderful thing.
“Runner’s high is an actual ‘high’ in the literal sense of the word,” personal trainer Andy Martin tells CNN. “During and upon completion of an intense workout – whether it be an endurance race or a high-intensity weightlifting session – endorphins flood the brain and can induce an emotional response that can range from satisfaction to euphoria, depending on the intensity of the activity.” Martin does stress, however, that there is a big difference between prioritising a “committed” exercise regime and becoming addicted to it.
Runner’s high is an actual ‘high’ in the literal sense of the word.”
“We throw around the word addiction,” writes David J Linden, neuroscience professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in the New York Times, “… What we mean is that these are behaviours we really enjoy… Aerobic exercise can be genuinely addictive for a select few, but it’s mostly an excellent antidepressant and anxiety reducer, and it is by far the single best thing one can do to mitigate the cognitive decline that accompanies normal aging.” The true euphoria of runner’s high, he says, is experienced only by a select few, “the rest merely feel accomplished and exhausted”. Unless compulsive exercise is accompanied by an eating disorder, Linden argues that the consequences are almost never severe, “so put down that remote, hoist yourself off the sofa, and get outside to exercise.”