It’s late Sunday night when an amateur triathlete sits down at his desk to update his training log. He notes that his goals for swimming and cycling have been met for the week, but when he adds up the running distances, he discovers that he’s 2 miles short.
So he reaches into his closet, quietly so he won’t wake his sleeping wife, pulls out his running shoes and is soon out covering those missing miles to stick to his training goals.
On another day, a young woman shows up at the gym before sunrise for her 6:30 a.m. aerobics class. The instructor compliments her on a tough workout, but what he doesn’t know is that from here, she will go to four or five more workout classes. In between, she may have something to eat, but that’s unlikely. She’s still trying to compensate for the burger and fries she had the night before.
Yet again, a housewife in her late 40s stares sternly at her body in the mirror and decides her thighs are too flabby. Time for another trip to the gym. Maybe with enough leg lifts, she can recover some of her youthful firmness. But she’s already been doing 100 a day for six months.
These three people are all seeing psychologists for what has become an addiction, not to drugs or gambling or alcohol, but to exercise. And experts say that even though they’re trying their best to be healthy, these and other exercise addicts are doing just the opposite to themselves, physically and psychologically.
Only recently recognized as a serious problem, exercise addiction “is rampant,” says psychologist Mickie Shapiro of Costa Mesa, a triathlete who acknowledges that she herself was once addicted to her sport. “When I was at the height of my running and training, I was addicted, although I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says.
A knee injury and subsequent surgery forced her to slow down, but even that didn’t come easily.
“After the surgery, I started running again, and I overdid it,” she says. “Now for me the challenge is to go slowly.”
“It’s kind of a shame,” says exercise physiologist Pam Deegan. “I’m so elated to see more people than ever recognize the importance and understand the benefits of exercise. But some people just take it too far, and then it’s not healthy anymore,” says Deegan, who is chairwoman of the School of Health Science, Physical Education and Athletics at Irvine Valley College.
Deegan, too, speaks from personal experience.
Several years ago, she worked herself so hard teaching one aerobics class after another that “I pulled my gluteus medius muscle right off the bone. I wasn’t even listening to my own words, because I teach kinesiology, and I tell my students that when you feel pain, stop. But I didn’t stop until it was too late.”
After more than two years of recuperation, Deegan says she’s OK now “as long as I do everything in moderation and cross-train. That way I’m using different muscles to get the same aerobic effect.”
Former Broadway dancer Toni Beck, executive director of the soon-to-open Spa at the Center in Costa Mesa, says she went through a period of exercise addiction about eight years ago.
“When I stopped dancing, I felt I had to keep my body the way I wanted it to look,” she says. “I was exercising two to three hours a day. But it did me more harm than good. Finally, the pain made me stop.”
Beck says she sees more exercise addiction in Southern California than anywhere else in the country.
“People are so obsessed with having perfect bodies here, and so many of them will do anything to get beautiful and stay that way,” she says. “There are fitness centers here that are open all night. It’s crazy.”
David Morrow, a triathlete and personal trainer who works out of the Sports Club/Irvine, says he knows at least three triathletes who’ve done exactly what Stan did to stick to their exercise schedules.
“There’s a personality type that’s involved in exercise addiction,” Morrow says. “These people are extremely driven, goal-oriented, extremely successful. I’ve read that the median salary for a triathlete is $70,000 a year. They’re obsessive/compulsive personalities. Thank God they’ve decided to go the athletic route instead of alcohol or drug abuse.”
Still, Morrow says he knows athletes who have become so obsessed with their sport that “they give up everything else, their families, work, businesses, just to train.”
Shapiro agrees that “it’s better than going to a bar, or to the mall, and it’s certainly better than taking drugs. But it can still hit you in the face.”
Dr. Marvin Rofsky, a psychologist in Orange who works primarily with anorexia and bulimia patients, says he’s had to hospitalize some patients who were exercising too much and eating too little.
“There’s always a certain part of the (anorexia and bulimia) population that gets involved with excessive exercise,” Rofsky says. “I had one patient who, when she wasn’t teaching aerobics, was doing it, all day long. Sometimes it becomes life threatening.”
Whether the exercise addict is bulimic, a triathlete or just trying to fight off the effects of aging, the underlying problem is the same, the experts say.
“These people are perfectionists,” Rofsky says. “They can’t accept themselves, or their bodies, as they are.”
And there’s always a reason behind that problem, he says.
“It’s a symptom of something else that’s going on in their lives,” he says. “Maybe they were molested as a child, or they have family problems.”
“People who work out that way are really unhappy,” Beck says. “It’s much easier to go out and run for an hour than to go through your head and ask yourself, ‘What’s really bothering me?’ ”
“They feel like, ‘If I could just exercise hard enough or long enough, my life will be the way I want it to be,” Morrow says. “But no matter how good or how fast they get, it still isn’t enough to satisfy them. They always, always feel that they could have done better.”
Exercise addicts not only are prone to chronic injuries, but are also often more susceptible to illness, says Shapiro, who teaches exercise psychology at UC Irvine.
“They can’t understand why they get every cold or flu that comes along,” she says. “It’s because they’re so worn down.”
Some overdoers are addicted to the body’s own morphine-like drug known as endorphins, which are released during exercise, Rofsky says. The endorphins can be deceptive, because they diminish the pain and truly make people feel better when they exercise, if only for a short while.
“When they say they do it because it feels good, they’re not lying,” Beck says. “It does feel good. The problem is two hours later, or the next day. If it hurts then, you know you’ve done too much.”
Other signs of exercise addiction include irritability, sleeplessness, and a feeling of overwhelming guilt after missing a scheduled workout.
“Exercise does need discipline,” Shapiro says. “And you should try not to miss a workout. “But it has to be kept in balance with the rest of your life. It needs to be something that adds to your life, instead of controlling it, or shutting off all the other aspects.
“But if you’re in it, it’s difficult to see the problem objectively. Addiction, like love, is very blind.”