An estimated 4 percent of people are addicted to an activity that is perfectly healthy when done in moderation.
Katherine Schreiber crept up to her room and closed her door quietly. With that privacy, she went to work. She raised her heart rate in secret. Jumping jacks, burpees, or lunges—it didn’t matter—she was in control.
At the age of 12, Katherine couldn’t cope with her parents’ divorce, comprehend the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, or control her debilitating thoughts about her appearance, which led to smoking and drinking heavily. After a brief spell at a “scared straight boot camp for troubled girls,” she was searching to fill a void. Then, she found exercise.
With exercise, she could control her appearance.
At 15, Katherine began to work out regularly. At 18, she became fixated with the numbers of her performance: how many calories she was burning, how many repetitions she was doing, how many times a day she visited the gym, and how many hours she spent working out.
Nothing could keep her out of the gym—not even a doctor’s orders. She exercised through a fever, a herniated disc in her back, and stress fractures in her feet.
Katherine could not stop. She had to continue because she felt like the world would end if she stopped. The fear of becoming overweight, as well as losing control, constantly loomed over her. At the time, working through injuries was worth it to Katherine. When she wasn’t exercising, she wasn’t herself.
When it starts to take over a person’s life, exercise can become harmful. People addicted to exercise might work through worsening physical, psychological, and interpersonal problems. They might not be able to stop exercising, and they may spend increasingly little amounts of time doing anything else. However, exercise addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative guide to defining, classifying, and diagnosing mental health disorders.
To Heidi Fuller, a sport and science movement professor at Salem State University, exercise compulsion stems from a bigger problem—other issues in a person’s life. The compulsion to exercise results from a person’s inability to mitigate feelings he or she doesn’t have the skills or strategies to cope with.
Fuller says social reinforcement for gym addiction is rampant. People are often impressed by avid gym-goers and sometimes encourage the addictive behavior. Exercise should be a priority, but not the only priority.
Fuller also says young people are especially susceptible to becoming addicted to exercise because it plays into a desire to exert control during a stress-filled time in their life.
In college, Katherine was practicing “exercise bulimia.” Her exercise compulsion was in tandem with an eating disorder, or secondary exercise addiction. Exercise is an alternative form of purging.
Katherine received treatment for her eating disorder later in college. She was not allowed to exercise, and she returned to a viable weight. She began treatment at 98 lbs and concluded at 115 lbs. Her therapy sessions addressed her anxiety around food, but no treatment was carried out to halt her exercise addiction.
So her secondary exercise addiction became a primary one. She was now addicted solely to the act itself and the way it made her feel. With her eating disorder taken care of, it was the structure and the schedule that kept her coming back to the gym.
Katherine’s friends thought she was crazy. But going to the gym truly held her together. She
describes herself as having “such a disorganization and chaos” in her mind that she needed the routine exercise.
Her exercise compulsion went unaddressed due to a variety of factors. One reason is the obesity epidemic. In the most obese country in the world, it’s difficult for exercise addiction to be recognized as an issue. Just like with Katherine, exercise compulsion is often overlooked at treatment centers.
The difficulty with exercise compulsion is that if the compulsive aspect is taken away, the action itself is generally a good thing. In fact, research by Dr. Sarah E. Linke, a psychologist at UC San Diego Health, and Michael Ussher, a professor of behavioral medicine at St. George’s University of London, suggests moderate exercise helps resolve substance addictions.
Exercise addiction is unlike substance addictions or other behavioral addictions that have purely adverse consequences. As Katherine explains, individuals normally aren’t told to stop exercising altogether. Finding the right amount can be tricky, which is why professionals have difficulty addressing it. Drug and alcohol addicts are often embarrassed of their problems, but people who spend hours in the gym are usually praised.
Katherine was afraid to give up something she found so much comfort in. She felt embarrassed that she couldn’t work out like a normal person. No matter how much exercise harmed her health or productivity, it still filled that void for Katherine.
But she knew she needed help. And she knew she needed to occupy herself with something far better for her physical and emotional health.
Her recovery started with self-assessment.
She recalls learning to deal with discomfort. As a millennial, she feels instant gratification was ingrained in her. Her culture taught her to avoid, medicate, drink, or smoke away her problems. In order to recover, she worked on being present.
She began to pursue things that were meaningful to her. She developed a love for baking, adopted a cat, and began hiking. These things, along with therapy, helped her make strides toward beating her addiction, as well as starting therapy.
Katherine currently works as a crisis counselor on a national suicide prevention lifeline for LGBT+ youth. Helping others and just staying occupied began to fill her void. Participating in activities outside her compulsion gave her a sense of fulfillment.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
She says small goals helped lead her to achievable and realistic objectives for herself. She gradually decreased her time at the gym by 10 to 15 minutes. She stopped looking at the calorie counter on the elliptical machine.
As Katherine became more and more occupied with things unrelated to her addiction, she spent less time on it. She developed an identity outside her compulsion. Exercise was no longer the most important thing in her life. In fact, it wasn’t even close.
She still exercises around 45 minutes a day. But she has a healthy relationship with the activity. And it’s not the end of the world if she misses a day.