‘I had to workout after every single meal’: What it’s like to suffer from exercise addiction
She explains that there are two types of exercise addiction: primary and secondary: “Primary exercise addiction is when someone is addicted to exercise alone, however, this addiction often occurs alongside an eating disorder, body dysmorphia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which case it would be termed secondary exercise addiction.”
For Dr Evans, there are a number of reasons why someone might get addicted to exercise, one of which is the pressure society puts on women to fit certain body standards. “This may lead them down the path of exercising, with the belief that specific routines or a certain amount of hours in the gym can give their body the look they want.”
This was certainly the case for 26-year-old Brenda, whose exercise addiction began when she started a weight loss journey. “I had an image of what I wanted my body to look like and as unattainable as it was, I was determined to reach it,” she tells me.
“I started off exercising twice a day but soon, I had to exercise after every single meal or drink I had,” she describes. “I started to see every object as a weight and I took every opportunity to lift or work out, there was no recovery. I used to climb eight flights of stairs at work, adding squats and lunges in between, as part of my cardio. I just couldn’t switch off.”
Dr Evans highlights that exercise addiction can often go unnoticed and untreated because it’s associated with healthy living. “In comparison to other addictive behaviours such as gambling or spending, exercise is seen as a positive thing and can even be encouraged by family and friends.”
Brenda can relate to this. In the throes of her addiction, her commitment to getting fit was rewarded by others, as people would tell her how “motivating” and “inspirational” she was. No one raised any concerns that she might be overdoing it.
It was only when Brenda suffered a knee injury that she was forced to take stock and reassess her relationship with exercise. After seeking help from a therapist and having a baby, she has, fortunately, developed a more balanced approach to exercise.
Dee Johnson, an addiction therapist at The Priory, says it’s important to recognise that, like with drugs, exercise addiction is chemical: “When we exercise, we release neurotransmitters, endorphins and dopamine that bring feelings of joy and elation.”
“The problem is that the initial euphoria plateaus so you have to do more in order to achieve the desired effect. This creates a dangerous cycle where you keep having to do more and more,” she continues.
Naomi recalls feeling this way. “I started out doing one HIIT workout a day but I had to keep pushing myself harder to get that same adrenalin buzz. I ended up working out for three hours a day.”
Like Naomi, 38-year-old fitness model Polly took exercising to the extreme but for her, the addiction went hand in hand with anorexia. “In my early 20s, I was at drama school and there was a lot of pressure on me to stay slim,” she says. “I started cutting down on my food and spending hours in the gym on top of dancing for five to six hours every day.