Addicted to the Gym?

Yesterday morning I had to miss out on my gym workout. One of my sons was catching an early flight out of town and needed a ride to the airport. Fortunately, after dropping him off at about ten after six, I just gassed up the car and then headed in to work (way early, but my smartcard still let me in).

gym addict the rock
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But the night before and even after I woke up yesterday morning, I kept playing my schedule out in my head and seeing if I could somehow work in even a brief weight training session, either before taking my son to the airport or immediately afterward. Neither was feasible and I felt disappointed. Then I spent some time figuring out how to reorganize my workouts for the next few days if I considered Thursday my complete rest day instead of Sunday.

What the heck’s wrong with me? If I take the occasional day off from the gym, nobody dies. Was it because I picked up 1/10th of a pound between Wednesday and Thursday instead of losing weight as I expected (thanks to the killer workout on leg day)?

I’ve kidded around before about being obsessed with lifting but this almost feels like an addiction.

No, I don’t think I’m actually addicted to exercise, but it’s become such a habit that I don’t like skipping out on a workout day. This is actually true of anything in my normal routine. I don’t like my schedule to be disrupted. Oh, I can tolerate changes periodically, but I don’t exactly enjoy them.

Can a person really become addicted to exercise? According to a number of sources, including the esteemed Wikipedia, the answer is “yes.”

An exercise addiction can have harmful consequences although it is not listed as a disorder in the latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). This type of addiction can be classified under a behavioral addiction in which a person’s behavior becomes obsessive, compulsive, and/or causes dysfunction in a person’s life. The next revision of the DSM (DSM-5) will include an addictions and related disorders section; gambling is the only non-substance addiction that is likely to be included. Other non-substance addictions, such as exercise addiction, are being researched but their inclusion is undetermined.

The Wikipedia articles goes on to list five signs and symptoms of exercise addiction:

  1. An increase in exercise that may be labeled as detrimental, or becomes harmful.
  2. A dependence on exercise in daily life to achieve a sense of euphoria; exercise may be increased as tolerance of the euphoric state increases.
  3. Not participating in physical activity will cause dysfunction in one’s daily life.
  4. Withdrawal symptoms following exercise deprivation including anxiety, restlessness, depression, guilt, tension, discomfort, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and headaches.
  5. High dependence on exercise causing individuals to exercise through trauma and medical conditions.

Well, this was only one, unscheduled day, so I don’t think enough time has passed to see if any of the above applies to me.

On the other hand, last December, I spent about 10 days visiting my parents and without access to a gym. I did go for daily walks of about 45 minutes each just to get some activity in, but it’s not exactly like I went crazy when I couldn’t lift.

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Of course, that was before I started counting calories (which would have been impossible at my parents’ place eating what they ate) and developing a system that has actually resulted in significant weight loss. I think I’m becoming “addicted” to seeing those numbers on my bathroom scale getting smaller little by little.

So what’s the difference between a healthy exercise habit vs. exercise addiction? According to

Only 8% of gym users meet the criteria for exercise addiction. In the classic pattern of addiction, exercise addicts increase their amount of exercise to re-experience feelings of escapism or the natural high they had previously experienced with shorter periods of exercise. They report withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to exercise, and tend to go back to high levels of exercise after a period of abstinence or control. Three percent of gym users feel they cannot stop exercising.

While many reasons for exercising are shared among exercisers whether or not they are addicted — health, fitness, weight management, body image and stress relief — exercisers who are not addicted cite other reasons that exercise addicts do not share, such as social enjoyment, relaxation, and time alone.

People at risk for exercise addiction have difficulties in other areas in their lives that drive them to exercise to dangerous levels. They feel strongly that exercise is the most important thing in their life, and they use exercise as a way to express emotions including anger, anxiety and grief, and to deal with work and relationship stress. Some know that their excessive exercising has caused conflicts with their family members.

So instead of exercise being part of living a healthy lifestyle, the exercise addict needs the behavior to get a feeling of power and control, to experience euphoria in order to counterbalance something that’s wrong in their lives.

At, they say an exercise addict tends to suffer from repeated injuries from overtraining. Beyond physical injury, social and family relationships suffer and the only thing the addicted person uses to define their own happiness is their body appearance and level of fitness.

The article also states that in addition to frequent injuries, the addict will continue to train, even though hurt, and thus risks additional injury. That’s not healthy, that’s compulsive. Such people spend huge amounts of time at the gym, so much so, that they don’t have much of a life outside of exercise.

I guess that’s another good reason to take a week off from working out every so many months. It’s a test to see if you can really live outside the gym and if you have a life beyond working out.

mutant strength.
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Although none of these articles mentioned it, I think an additional risk factor for seniors is that we can have a lot of our egos bound up in being older and yet still being “in shape.” I feel like I’ve got a little more “gym cred” going for me than a younger person just because I’m 60 and doing deadlifts and hack squats. It would be easy to let that define my self worth and become too attached to that feeling, especially since we live in a culture that all but worships youth, health, and appearance while devaluing older people. Life experience and accumulated wisdom aren’t nearly as attractive as the newest iPhone or other modern gadget we see modeled by youthful, beautiful people in advertisements.

Am I addicted? I don’t think so. Could I be pulled that way? Yes, there’s a potential. How can I make sure I don’t let exercise become too much a part of my life? By having other interests; by having a life.

Exercise is a means to an end. Sometimes I think of it as beating up on old age and keeping death at bay for as long as possible. Lifting weights has the same purpose as eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, having family and social relationships, and playing with my grandson. It’s all part of living a life that’s worth living. We can grow older but we don’t have to age, at least not as fast as we might otherwise.

But it takes more than exercise and a good diet to stay younger and stronger longer. It takes balance and perspective. Working out is just a tool to help you live longer and be more healthy as you get older. It’s just a part of what we need in order to actually enjoy each day we’re alive and breathing.

Exercise is just one way to build a life, it doesn’t become your life.

I think self-discipline is something, it’s like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

Daniel Goldstein


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