We are all familiar with the benefits of exercise, but overdoing it can yield some pretty debilitating results, especially on one’s social life. This writer shares how her addiction to exercise nearly ruined her vacation.
IT was freezing in peaceful Jeju island – a popular vacation spot in South Korea known for its natural sights and beaches – when this writer set foot there a few months ago.
Drenched from the evening rain, I had been shaking like a leaf despite being wrapped up in a long black coat and shawl. It was so cold that my fingers were numb. Inside, however, I was seething with raging unease. It had been nearly a week since I hit the gym, and my body was threatening to explode from pent-up frustration.
“I would rather not eat or sleep than to not exercise” – a recalcitrant, if silly stand I have reiterated on my Facebook timeline every now and again. Yet, eating and sleeping was all I did in between stopovers at commercial touristy destinations during my 11-day bus tour across the south of Korea.
It was springtime when the boyfriend and I set out for our Korean retreat. We began our journey in Seoul, and had stayed in different hotels across the country for every night throughout our trip. That meant having to wake up at 6am every morning to pack and prepare for the day’s trip.
I had planned on going jogging at night, but was often too exhausted from the tour’s activities, which typically ended at 10pm. Plus, the frigid cold in places like Mount Sorak and Jeju island left the prospect of running outdoors entirely out of the question.
Most of the hotels we stayed in didn’t have a gym either. I did bring a jump rope with me, but the cramped hotel facilities diminished whatever possibility of me having a good workout.
It was around day five when I started to notice that my triceps were losing their definition. I was frantic. It was only a matter of time before the rest of me swelled into a big, blubbery balloon. I was getting fat, fat, fat, fat, fat, and I was losing it.
I tried to make up for the lack of physical activity by eating as little as I possibly could throughout my trip, but for most of it, I was also moody, grumpy, and constantly lashing out at my boyfriend for no good reason.
It wasn’t until my usually mild-mannered other (and better) half threatened to buy me a ticket on the next flight home, halfway into our trip, that it hit me: maybe I was taking my preoccupation with exercise a little too far.
I have been an avid gym-goer for years, but never have I imagined that exercise would start to take over my life.
My fitness regime has taught me patience, perseverance, discipline and determination, and has since transformed me from a bumbling fat kid into a self-assured, confident woman – so how could something so good be bad for me?
It turns out that even the sacred domain of exercise is not exempt from the “too much of a good thing” rationale.
We are all familiar with the benefits of exercise – weight loss, better health, better sleep, and so on – but overdoing it can yield some pretty debilitating results.
According to the American Running Association, when the commitment to exercise crosses the line to dependency and compulsion, it can create a physical, social and psychological quagmire for the avid exerciser. The phenomenon typically plagues runners.
As Richard Benyo, an American journalist and veteran distance runner writes on the subject in the Road Runners Club of America: “The exercise addict has lost his balance: Exercise has become overvalued compared to elements widely recognised as giving meaning in a full life – work, friends, family, community involvement – in short, the fruits of our humanity.”
To the addict, more is always more – more training, more hours, more mileage, more intensity. Anything that comes in between them and exercise is immediately resented.
Signs of addiction include withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability and depression when one’s circumstances prevents one from working out.
Uh-oh. Sounds like we have a problem. Personally, I don’t run and I am not one for outdoor adventures (I work out on the elliptical trainer and I cycle), but I have been known to miss out on dinner dates and movie nights with my boyfriend and friends just so I could have a good workout at the gym.
But exercise addiction, like any other addiction, can cost you more than just a night out with popcorn. To quote Benyo again: “The obsession bites back in the form of chronic injuries, impaired relationships and other problems.”
Frankly, I am getting a little paranoid. Have I been overdoing it? I had after all, been a wet blanket for most of my trip in South Korea because I just couldn’t stand NOT exercising (I usually exercise up to five times in a week).
I am still in my 20s, and already, I have been experiencing knee problems due to my bad form while cycling and from attempting barbell squats.
Osteoarthritis, the lesser-known but equally malignant cousin of osteoporosis, is another probable consequence of exercise addiction.
Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder, which is usually due to aging, and wear and tear on a joint. There are no conclusive findings on the correlation between osteoarthritis and exercising to date; what is clear, however, is that osteoarthritis can be caused by trauma to, or overuse of the joints.
According to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, “People who engaged in sports or other physically demanding activities are known to be at an increased risk of osteoarthritis in the joints they use most (eg knees and hips in soccer players, and hands in boxers).
“Part of this apparent correlation can be explained by increased risk of joint injury. It would also seem logical that these groups would be predisposed to osteoarthritis from overuse injuries, and not necessarily from trauma.”
My colleague and self-professed outdoor enthusiast Leong Siok Hui, relates how constant and strenous physical activities has resulted in the wearing-and-tearing of her knee cartilage.
Leong is only 41, but she already requires knee surgery. Years of mountain climbing, running and cycling constantly have resulted in the deterioration of her knee joints, she shares.
She also has patella maltracking, a condition in which the patella does not remain within the central groove of the femur (thigh bone), and that has exacerbated the wearing down of her knees.
She is currently undergoing stem cell regeneration treatment for her knees. She misses the “runner’s high”, and still tries to fit in low-impact exercises, such as working out on the elliptical trainer, into her routine.
“This,” she says, pointing to her knees, “should not be a reason to stop exercising.”
So why push so hard? It is a question that exercise addicts get asked a lot. I am not an athlete. I have no performance goals. I don’t even run marathons. So why try?
I wish I knew. During a more recent trip to Shanghai, I woke up at 4am just to hit the hotel gym to burn off the chocolate cake I had for dessert. That session did leave me quite dizzy, and I am grateful that I didn’t pass out.
I recently took up CrossFit and the workouts-of-the-day (WODs) have not been kind to my body either. Movements like the “clean”, the “snatch”, and kettlebell swings have given me a sore back, a sore neck and bruises across the length of my legs, and I’ve only been at it for about a month.
What’s in it for me? I really don’t know. I just want to be good at it, and I am far from giving up.
For what it’s worth, at least my pursuit for fitness has served as a rather effective anger management mechanism, and has kept me sane through many a bad day at work. Also, the world just seems a little less crappy when I’m working out, and I plan to continue doing this for as long as I breathe.
The remedy for this addiction is pretty obvious – just cut back on exercise, d’oh. But try telling Homer Simpson to cut down on his doughnuts, and you’ll see that it’s easier said than done.
The American Running Association suggests that exercise addicts should try to change the emphasis of their exercise from quantity (meaning that more isn’t always better) to quality. For instance, you can try engaging in 30-minutes of interval training, rather than an hour of low-intensity training.
Try talking to an experienced personal trainer, and get him or her to plan out your workouts on a weekly basis. Draw a seven-day schedule, planning frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise with specific, reasonable goals relative to your abilities.
Very importantly, stick to your programme, and make sure that rest and recovery are given equal emphasis as they are essential in any well-balanced training programme.
Again, the above is easier said than done. I often feel like biting the heads off imaginary puppies on days when I’m not working out, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If I have to force myself to take a day off exercise, so be it.
I am currently working on cutting down exercising from five to four days a week. There is no point in pushing myself to exhaustion all the time, only to end up with a series of injuries. I want to be 60, and still rocking my six-pack abs.
Being addicted to exercise is hard, especially when you’re living in a population where 20% are reportedly obese.
As if being addicted to exercise doesn’t do enough to alienate me from family and friends, I have recently taken on the Paleo Diet, which is based on this simple premise – if the cavemen didn’t eat it, then you shouldn’t either.
Essentially, the Paleo Diet cuts out processed foods like grain products, legumes and dairy, and comprises mostly of meat, poultry, fish and veggies.
Understandably, I have been preparing most of my own meals since.
My colleagues make faces at my steamed chicken breast and vegetables, and my McDonalds-loving boyfriend thinks I’m crazy, but I think it’s worth it. I have gained nearly 3kg of muscle mass in just a few months and my skin feels less oily than before.
I turn 21 (again!) this weekend and I have told my mum not to get me a cake. But perhaps I really ought to give this health and fitness thing a break. After all, it is my birthday, and surely a tiny slice (or five) of moist chocolate cake wouldn’t hurt...
And when it hits my thighs, I can always burn it off at the gym.
Fiona Ho is a fitness enthusiast and a newly certified personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Her current interests include CrossFit and RPM classes.