Exercise addiction has many consequences. Not only can a relentless physical activity regimen lead to overuse injuries, exhaustion, burnout, heart rate abnormalities, adverse changes in cardiac tissue, and lowered immunity.
Compulsive physical activity can get in the way of close personal relationships – and may have the most adverse effects on romantic ones.
A Glimpse Into Exercise Addiction
Consider the mood effects of going to the gym, hitting the track, or forcing yourself to bike ride or swim for hours a day, most days of the week, without respite. Sure, moderate physical activity can boost your wellbeing and give you a kick of endorphins. But an exercise schedule without pause can, as research shows, exacerbate (if not precipitate) anxiety and depression.
People who have lost sight of their initial exercise goals and devolved into an endless addictive cycle with physical activity may perceive the amount of effort required to maintain personal relationships as an impediment to their workout routines…-Katherine Schreiber
What’s more, people who train themselves to the point of exhaustion can suffer from overtraining syndrome, which entails fatigue, loss of motivation, restlessness, irritability, impairments in ability to concentrate, and insomnia.
The above outcomes – combined with the limited time and energy exercise addicts have to develop relationships, given how all-consuming their routines are – make getting close to others and maintaining meaningful connections incredibly difficult.
Moreover, people who have lost sight of their initial exercise goals and devolved into an endless addictive cycle with physical activity may perceive the amount of effort required to maintain personal relationships as an impediment to their workout routines and overlook the importance of such relationships to their mental (and physical) health. Activities that would forge a stronger bond between them and a significant other, family member, or friend may not appeal if it does not involve physical activity or if it involves a deviation from an exercise addict’s strict schedule.
The Impact on Loved Ones
Partners, friends, and family members of exercise addicts may also feel shut out of the exercise addict’s life and hurt as a consequence. This may make these individuals less likely to try to repair their relationship with an exercise addict, contributing to the rift between them and sapping the spirit out of their relationship.
People close to an exercise addict may also experience a sense of guilt when they compare their own fitness habits to those of the exercise addict.
Despite exercising at a healthy volume and frequency on a regular basis, facing or hearing about an exercise addict’s relentless schedule may cause friends and loved ones to question whether their own routine isn’t enough. As a result an unhealthy uptick in their own commitment to fitness may occur as they attempt to “keep up with” the exercise addict’s.
And when it comes to intimacy, romantic partners of an exercise addict may be particularly disappointed an hurt. The exhaustion wrought by overzealous physical activity can sap sexual desire, removing this act of interpersonal bonding from the list of shared activities that would otherwise bolster a couple’s relationship and building resentment between both parties.
The irritability, anxiety, and depressed mood that an exercise addict experiences when he or she cannot engage in exercise to their desired extent also has the effect of pushing close others away. Partners of exercise addicts may fear approaching their significant other for fear of further provoking them or out of a concern, validated by historical attempts to improve the exercise addict’s mood, that they will be targets of misdirected aggression brought about by the exercise addict’s frustration of not being able to exercise as planned.
Previously close platonic others or potential new friends may feel disconnected from an exercise addict, whose workout schedule leaves little time to hang out and catch up outside of the gym. Work colleagues may experience an exercise addict’s tension and stress arising from an unhealthy relationship with physical activity as off-putting, and thus may distance themselves from exercise addicts or avoid collaborating with them for fear of being riled up by the exercise addict’s palpable tension, or they may avoid an on-edge exercise addict for fear of being the brunt of the latter’s bad mood.
The Reality of Recovery
This isn’t to say that there is little to no hope for someone who is addicted to exercise in terms of personal relationships. Though isolation is a hallmark of all addictions – and an interference with social life is one of several signs of exercise addiction – most exercise addicts have people in their lives who deeply care about them and want them to return back to the happy, functioning, calmer individual they once knew.
…with behavioral change, previously rigid exercise addicts may become more approachable and more personable, inviting in other people to bolster their network of social support and keep them encouraged to remain moderate in their exercise habits.-Katherine Schreiber
The upside of this common reality is that if and when an exercise addict decides to get help or attempts to reduce their time spent exercising, those individuals will be there for them. In addition, with behavioral change, previously rigid exercise addicts may become more approachable and more personable, inviting in other people to bolster their network of social support and keep them encouraged to remain moderate in their exercise habits.
The downside is that not many exercise addicts wish to reduce their physical activity and many are resistant to even acknowledging that they have a problem. (It’s no help that fitness cultures encourage an unhealthy attitude towards exercise, often underscoring the misconception that more exercise is always better and/or too much is never enough).
If you or someone you know is suffering from exercise addiction, it can be baffling to understand how best to broach the issue with them, let alone encourage them to get help. The best onlookers can do is to voice their support should the exercise addict ever wish to change his or her ways, continue to invite the exercise addict to participate in non-exercise related activities, as well as (without judgment) explore the exercise addicts’ attitudes towards and motivation to exercise.
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