If you’ve ever started the day with a sweaty HIIT class, you’ll know how great a morning workout can feel. Thanks to the feel-good hormones it releases, regular exercise can leave you feeling less stressed, less anxious and generally a happier person.
Then there’s the whole aspirational buzz that comes along with tapping into the wellness industry. Whether you realise it or not, there’s something super gratifying about smugly sipping on a kale smoothie instead of a fizzy drink, regularly getting eight hours sleep or opting for healthy food over a greasy takeaway.
But according to a study by researchers in Budapest, for around 0.3 to 0.5% of gym-goers, working out and the quest for ultimate wellness can develop into an unhealthy obsession that, if left unchecked, can have a seriously damaging effect on their daily life.
A recent study by Anglia Ruskin University also found that your risk rises if you’ve suffered with issues like anorexia or bulimia in the past. Researchers found that you’re nearly four times more likely to suffer from exercise addiction if you’ve had an eating disorder.
It makes sense if you think about it: controlling calories could turn into obsessing over hitting 200 reps in the gym, with the quest to ‘get strong’ becoming another source of anxiety and control.
Wellness and exercise addiction can be difficult to spot – if someone has conquered their issues with disordered eating and seemingly appears to be living a more health-conscious lifestyle, friends and family might not realise they’re still engaging in compulsive and damaging behaviours underneath the surface.
As Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts (March 2 – 8) we spoke to experts about wellness and exercise addiction – and the additional risks for someone with a history of disordered eating.
Can eating disorders by replaced with exercise addiction?
Kerrie Jones, a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders and clinical director of treatment centre Orri, says that both eating disorders and exercise addiction are symptoms of a complex, underlying problem.
“Eating disorders, like exercise addiction, arise when we have lived through an experience – or lots of different experiences – that have taught us that we’re not safe in our day-to-day lives,” she says.
“Obsessing about food, weight or exercise is a behavioural mechanism that has developed as a means of keeping us feeling safe and in control when otherwise we’d feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.”
Jones says these compulsive behaviours can mask our ability to connect to our fear by focusing our attention on other, more tangible things, such as weight, food, physical appearance and shape. “We call these ‘maladaptive’ coping mechanisms, as they develop through seemingly good intentions, but to the detriment of our longer-term physical and mental health.
“Sometimes, when people reach a point in their recovery where they are stable and functioning, they may move from an obsessive relationship to food, to an obsessive relationship to exercise.”
And because exercise is perceived as a healthy, positive activity in life, it can be harder to spot. “It’s a much more socially accepted and idolised means of maintaining obsessive behavioural patterns,” says Jones, which means it can linger for years before a person seeks treatment.
What are the underlying psychological reasons this behaviour develops?
“There’s no one reason or cause why someone might develop an eating disorder or exercise addiction, however, it’s often a combination of social, genetic and psychological factors,” says Jones. “Commonly, we find a negative life experience or traumatic experience at the root.”
Experts say maladaptive behaviours – like going to the gym more than once a day – serve a purpose to help us feel in control when we’d otherwise feel overwhelmed with painful emotions. Speaking to a GP about this behaviour is really important, as treatments can help people understand what’s at the core.
Chartered psychologist and Healthspan ambassador Dr Meg Aroll stresses that more research needs to be carried out on exercise addiction, to explore the psychological correlates of this behavioural pattern, but there are many underlying psychological factors involved in the development of behavioural addictions in general.
“We know that it’s important to change patterns of ruminative and compulsive thoughts in people with behavioural addictions, which is why treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy are likely to be of help.”
What are the signs of exercise addiction?
While there’s no ‘one way’ for someone to be addicted to exercise, there are some common signs to note. Look out for that person who’s seemingly at back-to-back fitness classes on their Instagram stories, 24/7.
Social media has made it easier for people to ‘find their tribe’ and connect with other like-minded people, but it’s an easy way to validate a compulsive habit- especially if your social life revolves solely around exercising with others.
Jones says that a person who is struggling with addiction might feel guilt and shame about missing exercise routines, maintain secrecy around the amount they’re exercising or continue to workout when they’re ill, exhausted or injured. Above all, repeatedly prioritising exercise over family time, a social life and a career is a major warning sign that something might not be right.
Does social media encourage exercise addiction?
“For people who are predisposed to eating disorders or behavioural addictions, wellness culture can appear to support and condone this type of maladaptive behaviour,” says Aroll.
“However, on its own, wellness and social media culture is not to blame – someone with such conditions will have a complex combination of factors in their life leading to their symptoms, which should be investigated fully and treated professionally.”
That being said, Jones says if you have an addictive personality, it’s important to be conscious of the content you’re consuming and unfollow any accounts that encourage or exacerbate negative behaviours.
What should you do if you suspect someone has replaced an eating disorder with exercise addiction?
“It’s important to broach the topic with them directly as their physical and mental health may be severely at risk,” says Jones. “Pick a time to talk when emotions aren’t running high, and where possible, try and avoid talking about exercise specifically or the more symptomatic aspects of exercise addiction or their eating disorder.
“Instead, focus your questions and concerns on how they’re feeling, underneath their day-to-day activities.
“Keep in mind that there are specialists out there who can help and the charity Beat has numerous resources on how to have a difficult conversation with someone.”
Health professionals extol the virtues of exercise, especially when it comes to mental health – do we need to talk more about the dangers of disordered exercising during recovery?
“I think there needs to be a broader conversation about what it means to be ‘healthy’ and to live a ‘healthy lifestyle’,” says Jones. “What works for some, may not work for others, particularly if they’ve suffered with an eating disorder in the past and would have trouble maintaining a normal relationship to exercise and food.”
Jones says that when health professionals are assessing someone’s physical health, they need to keep in mind their unique story and what it brings to the table.
“If possible, we need to investigate the intention associated with exercise and unpick the feelings that arise before, during and after exercising.”