Gym junkie or addict?
Is exercise taking over your life? There's a healthier way to do it. Photo: Nicolas Walker
Addicted to the gym? We all know exercise is good for us, but when it starts to take over your life, you could be putting your health at risk.
Aaron McKenzie is the founder of Origin of Energy, a Sydney gym franchise that promotes balance across all areas of life. But he wasn't always so holistic. As a young personal trainer exercise was his main focus and he used to push himself to the limits regularly.
“I was completely caught up in the passion of exercise and looking better and bigger,” he says. “I'd regularly be working out seven days a week.”
Even though he was getting great results, he was constantly ramping up his routine in order to get bigger. He started seeing less of his friends and family and missing dinners and birthdays in order to spend time in the gym.
Eventually, McKenzie's relationship with his partner broke down and he began to feel anxious about not training enough. He was so wired he was having trouble sleeping and he started losing muscle mass.
“I became irritable, I pushed away the people I loved. It was a snowball effect, the more I trained the more weight I lost, and the more weight I lost the more I felt I had to train. I was so anxious.”
It took a full hormonal crash to get him to realise what he was doing wasn't healthy.
“I got chronic fatigue, I lost my relationship, my health — I lost 30kg of muscle mass in six months from training so much.”
Wearing your body down
While McKenzie's story is extreme, for many gym lovers the constant juggle to squeeze life in between increasingly intense workouts will be familiar.
Today people are exercising for leisure more than we ever have before. The rise of shows such as The Biggest Loser and the boom in fitness magazines show just how sold we are on the cult of exercise, and endurance challenges such as marathons or triathlons, which were once the realm of professional athletes, are now a common goal.
And while a love of activity is great, society's obsession with getting bigger, faster and stronger could be masking or even encouraging a dangerous addiction for some, according to physiotherapist Jason Smith, founder of the Back in Motion health group and author of Get Yourself Back in Motion.
“I have a lot of clients who are exercising an unhealthy amount, but ironically think they're doing the right thing,” he explains.
In fact, mention exercise addiction and many people think it's a compliment — there are worse things to be addicted to, right?
“No one talks about the dangers of working out too much, but I see people's work and relationships suffer because they can't concentrate or stay motivated outside of the gym. I see their physical health deteriorate — their immune system, their nervous system and even their digestive system can suffer pretty significantly,” says Smith.
“People today idolise extreme exercise such as marathons and excess weight lifting as the pinnacle of achievement. For athletes it's fine, it's their job, but most of us don't have to constantly lift harder or run farther to lead a very healthy life,” he says. “People are literally wearing their muscles and bones down.”
Of course, telling clients this doesn't always go down well.
“No one ever comes to see me because they think they're exercising too much, and they often don't want to cut down, but these people actually get better results by training less,” he says.
An encouraged addiction
So what's caused the gym to become another vice to indulge in?
Catherine Hart, a psychologist with Psychology Melbourne, believes exercise addiction is on the rise, particularly among men, but few people get help as society accepts and even encourages the extreme behaviour.
She explains the issue often goes hand in hand with eating disorders or another increasingly common problem, muscle dysmorphia or "bigorexia" — a condition where somebody sees their body in a skewed way and believes they need to develop more muscle mass.
“It's not just exercise. I once saw a man who would carry chicken breasts around with him everywhere — to restaurants, in his jacket pocket — just because he was trying to bulk up,” she says.
It sounds bizarre, but the worst part is many people don't consider this behaviour unusual, she says — think about how many friends or co-workers you know living on protein shakes and tuna.
“Extreme exercise and eating is definitely encouraged by the media — we see sportspeople playing with injuries and every man on TV has a six-pack as a result of their 'intense regime'. But there isn't enough information out there on the negative effects.
“Just like any drug, exercise changes the chemicals in our brain, giving us a high, but eventually it takes more time and effort to get the same feeling, so people end up working out for longer. That's when they start pushing away their loved one or injuring themselves,” she says.
For McKenzie, this was definitely the case. After his breakdown, it took him a year to recover and be able to exercise again without falling back into old habits.
“It's frustrating, you think more is better and you get such a high off training — you look good, you feel good, you're strong, you're healthy. But then you go past that point and you're so not healthy any more,” he explains. “I still see so many men battling the same issues.”
“The hardest thing for me was the discipline to not work out and just listen to my body and take it easy. Now I only train three to four times a week for 30 minutes, and my body is looking as good as it ever has.”
Gym junky or addict?
So how do you know when you're passionate about the gym and when you should be worried?
Hart believes it depends on what motivates you to work out.
“Generally if you're exercising for internal reasons such as wanting to get rid of the feeling of guilt and reducing anxiety, that's worrying,” she says.
Exercising with injuries or developing problems in other areas of your life as a result of your gym time are also warning signs.
She believes it's important for people to see a counsellor if they're feeling this way as they can help them understand the motivations behind their need to work out and find a healthier way to think about exercise.
And even if you're not technically addicted but find yourself at the gym every day, it's still worth regularly assessing how happy you are in your life and what part exercise plays in that.
And of course that doesn't mean you have to stop working out.
Smith believes the key is making sure exercise fits into you life, rather than the other way around.
“You have to exercise but you also need to sleep well, have dinner with friends, be fulfilled at work and enjoy your life. If this isn't all happening, then you're not healthy, no matter how much time you spend in the gym.”
He believes there also needs to be a societal shift before people start to take the problem seriously and personal trainers stop overprescribing workouts.
“We've somehow got the horse behind the cart — the point of exercise is to live a longer and better life,” says Smith. “But if we're spending all our time in the gym or thinking about working out, we're not really living.”
Are you addicted to exercise?
- Do you think about working out even when you're not doing it?
- If you skip a workout do you feel stressed, guilty, tense or anxious?
- Does exercise alleviate negative feelings for you?
- Have you stopped participating in hobbies and social activities in order to exercise more?
- Have you been experiencing more frequent injuries or colds?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate on work without thinking about your next gym session?
- Do you work out intensely every day even if you're exhausted?
If any of those statements are true for you, Hart believes you might be exercising unhealthily and it could be worth speaking to a doctor or counsellor.