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My “Healthy” Behavior

By on July 31, 2011

I noticed something while I was running the other day. I was in pain. Exhausted. I wanted to stop and rest. I needed water. But something wouldn’t let me. Something made me keep going.

After the run I continued thinking about the ordeal I’d just put myself through. All in all I’d clocked roughly six miles and about twenty-two for the week; not too shabby. But why had I put myself through such agony? I’m not training for a competition. I’m not preparing for some special  event that would require me to look my absolute best. So why was I out in that summer heat? Why was I up early every morning this morning pumping hills? Is it really health? Or am I, like so many modern men (and women) compulsively exercising?

A bit of internet research showed there is a real condition associated with too much exercise. Experts are divided on what to call it (exercise addition, exercise dependence, obligatory exercise, compulsive exercise, compulsive athleticism and exercise abuse are all in the running),  but the contours of the concept are the same: too much exercise can be addictive and therefore unhealthy.

Competing theories about what triggers the condition abound, too. One is that chronic exercisers become addicted to the endorphin release and the effects that release provide to the mind and body. Another is that the media inundates us with idealized physical “models” that we feel obligated to pursue. This obligation is rooted in the perceived need to achieve and maintain high status in the eyes of others, which, some would say, is strongly linked to one’s social acceptance and even the survival one’s genes. Another is that exercise dependence is a “subtle” form of an eating disorder wherein the over exerciser seeks to manage their weight by obsessively burning more calories than they take in. A fourth is based on what’s called opposition-process theory. Simply stated, our emotions operate in tandem. As one, say pain, is sparked, the other, pleasure, is suppressed. However, over time these emotions switch places so that the event that initially triggered pain (running, for example) begins to trigger pleasure. In essence, the pain subsides and the pleasure abides. A fifth is that in a world where so much seems out of our hands, exercise offers an avenue to achieve a semblance of control. Think about our weight goals or time goals or distance goals. We set and seek them in part because we’re only competing against ourselves.

Truth is I have no doubt that each of these theories is connected and that they all bear some nugget of legitimacy. But I also hesitate to self diagnose or rush to problematize what may be a fleeting phenomenon. What I know is that I’m a product of my environment. Our society
celebrates extremists of every ilk. (A colleague who spent two summers working at a fat camp once told me the most popular camper was the one who could hide a soda can in his tummy rolls.) As long as we glorify and reward extremism –literally pushing ourselves to our absolute limit – we’re going to have extreme exercisers. And, to an extent, that’s fine, right? The human body is a machine with a remarkable capacity for adaption.

The problem is exercise addiction has been shown to produce overexercising syndrome, the symptoms of which include loss of enthusiasm, fatigue, depression, decreased immunity, sudden drop in performance, not to mention injury. So it seems in the long (pun intended) and
irrespective of what’s driving me, too much exercise will only end up backfiring on me. A week, two weeks from now, I may burn out or injure myself. Either way, whatever improvements I’ve made will be lost. And maybe that’s enough reason to slow down, stop, rest, and get some water.


Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of several books, co-publisher  of Outside the Box Publishing, LLC, and the editor of the HNIC Report, a daily blog covering political issues. Mr. Ross is a sought after speaker and consultant who resides in New York.

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