exercise addiction

How I Overcame Exercise Addiction

We all know regular exercise is good for us, but can you really workout too much? Yes, yes you can. In this blog Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Sarah King, shares her journey with exercise addiction and explains how she changed her relationship with exercise for the better.

It’s 6am. I’m on the treadmill at the gym. It’s dark, cold and dreary. Winter is so depressing, but I’m determined. If I can just get more toned, have thinner thighs, finally get abs like the girls in those fitness magazines, then I’ll be happy. My boyfriend will love me more. I’ll be good enough. Just. Keep. Pushing. My body is screaming at me to stop. I feel dizzy and my lungs are burning, but my mind shouts even louder. I push through and torture myself with 5 sets of heavy squats instead of the prescribed 3. Go hard or go home right?

Back in the day when I hit the gym I only had one speed: all out. If I didn’t feel dead when I finished a class, jumped off the treadmill or finished a weights routine I used to think to myself ‘well that was a waste of time’ or ‘why are you being so lazy?’

Needless to say, this pattern didn’t end well. Every few months I would experience extreme fatigue that would force me to slow down. I’d listen to my body and do more gentle exercise, but the second I felt more energetic I was straight back into my crazy routine. However, I knew this pattern was unsustainable and NOT good for my overall health!

I had exercise addiction.

I chased the post-workout high and anything less than that I didn’t warrant as a ‘workout’. At this time in my life I was also suffering from an eating disorder and hadn’t had a period in YEARS.

From the outside I looked like the ‘perfect picture of health’ but inside my body and mind told a different story. I knew I needed to create a healthier relationship with exercise so that I could restore my weight, heal my mind, and regain my period. The first thing that needed to change was my workout intensity. Here’s exactly how I regained a balance exercise routine and the intensity I stick to on a weekly basis.

running exercise

I stopped running like a tiger was chasing me

Exercising to burn off a certain food, or escape an emotion puts your body in a stressed out state. Add a high intensity workout to that mix and you’re only adding fuel to the fire and creating a biochemical shit storm that leads to

  • Intense fatigue
  • Poor recovery from your workouts
  • Potential injury (I had my fair share of stress fractures)
  • A depressed immune system
  • And of course zero hormones or sex drives

The question I had to ask myself was this: how do I make exercise more sensible so my body feels safe and relaxed?

The answer was more mindful movement

I started to engage my senses when I was exercising. If I went for a walk I took notice of what was around me, what the air smelled like, how my hair felt in the breeze, and the change in footing under my feet. I would stop to take a picture of something pretty, or to pat a dog that was cute. In essence I became engaged in what I was doing, never rushed and had no expectation of smashing or setting a “personal best”.

I also stopped when I was tired

This seems pretty common-sense but can be hardwired in for those who’ve previously pushed themselves to the extreme. I thought tiredness meant weakness, but I was SO wrong. I started to recognise that my body was talking to me and for years I was ignoring it’s signs that I needed to SLOW DOWN, rest, and have a few days off. Subsequently I had days where I had more energy than I’d ever experienced before to think, be productive in other areas of my life, and still enjoy a bit of exercise.

Then I decided to quit the gym

Something I never thought I’d do, but it was a place that never ‘sparked joy’ as Marie Kondo puts it. It always reminded me of the days I pushed too hard and I needed a new environment and clean state to start exercising in a more balanced way again. So I started practicing Pilates, Yoga, and going for walks instead. And then when I was ready I joined up to a studio that ran group exercise classes, and loved the community environment and friendships I built through that.

This whole process above took me YEARS, but now I can honestly say I have a very healthy and balanced relationship with exercise. My hormones are happy (I got my period back after a decade of it being MIA), and I workout to have fun. When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, suffering from hypothalamic amenorrhea, and terrible fatigue, I never thought this would be possible – but it is! And I now get to help so many women find and achieve this balance for themselves, which I must say, is even more rewarding.

If this sounds familiar and you’re worried about the relationship you have with exercise, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) like Sarah can help. To find an AEP near you, click here.

Written by Sarah King

Sarah is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Pilates instructor and personal trainer at Sarah King Active.