I didn’t used to like science. I barely squeaked by with a B in biology. I silently cringed when my physics teacher told us that we would be memorizing theorems and formulas to calculate velocity and power and speed.
But now, I am learning to love it.
In my previous post I talked about my running addiction, and how with the love and guidance of family, friends, my treatment team, and God, I was able to overcome the obsession. And while my experience is great, there are probably some of you who read that post and thought, “Well, that’s nice, Lauren, but I don’t have that. I don’t have a husband like yours. ” Or maybe you thought, “Can’t a person just get herself better on her own?”
Well, this is where science comes in. Because MY experience is MY experience (anecdotal and all), but there IS science to back up WHY and HOW support is necessary in overcoming exercise addiction.
First off, you may be wondering what exercise addiction actually is. Researchers Freimuth, Moniz, and Kim state in their article “Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction” that some alterations to the DSM-IV TR substance dependence definition can be made to also carry over to exercise addiction. The following are symptoms the three researchers noted:
Tolerance: increasing the amount of exercise in order to feel the desired effect, be it a” buzz” or sense of accomplishment;
Withdrawal: in the absence of exercise the person experiences negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problems ;
Lack of control: unsuccessful at attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising for a certain period of time;
Intention effects: unable to stick to one’s intended routine as evidenced by exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise or consistently going beyond the intended amount;
Time: a great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise;
Reduction in other activities: as a direct result of exercise social, occupational, and/or recreational activities occur less often or are stopped;
Continuance: continuing to exercise despite knowing that this activity is creating or exacerbating physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems.
The article continues to detail that there are no specific recommendations on appropriate protocol for the treatment of this disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be utilized as well as changing the sport one is addicted to. Medication may be an option, but ultimately, there is no clear-cut, 12-step like treatment.
And that’s ok.
Firstly, when a person struggling with exercise addiction decides to get help determines how treatment should look. In my case, I was at such a low body weight when intervention occurred, that merely switching to another sport (I won’t run, instead I’ll CrossFit!) would still be physically dangerous. Plus, I had such a distorted view of exercise that when I did change sports from running to yoga, I merely transposed all of my obsessive traits for marathons and triathlons to yoga. I had the same skewed mindset (More is better! Keep on going!). The only difference is that my addiction came out on a yoga mat and eventually had my studio membership put on hold because I was literally disintegrating in the heated yoga room.
Now, I am neither a doctor nor a therapist. But what I do know is that when at a low body weight, the brain is defunct. A commonly referred to study that demonstrates the connection between nutrition, cognition, and behavior is the Minnesota Starvation Experiment conducted by Keys. Quick recap of the research: in the mid-1940s, a number of young healthy men volunteered to have their daily caloric intake reduced for a number of months while output/exercise remained consistent. Physiological, emotional and cognitive abilities were observed throughout the time. The result? Yes, the men lost weight, strength, energy, and stamina. Yes, they became obsessed with food and cooking. Yes, after months of a lowered caloric intake some even resorted to bodily harm in order to be removed from the study. Brain cognitions were off. Rational thought-processes were skewed. The men had difficulty thinking.
And this is why family and friend involvement is critical when rehabilitating from exercise addiction or an eating disorder–one trying to recover cannot be a lone silo. As noted from the Minnesota study, these men eventually suffered extreme psychological changes, one even threatening to kill the leader of the experiment. The National Institute of Mental Health states that “Individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy, medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling, and medications” are all a part of treatment. Note that all of these modes of recovery involve OTHER PEOPLE. Medication, counseling, and therapy necessitate the help of professionals and loved ones.
So while some may try to “muscle through” an addiction and think they can just use their mental strength to overcome these obsessions and extreme behaviors, sadly, IT MAY NOT WORK. If it were just as easy to NOT go running or to a yoga class or swim or bike, then why not just (with a snap of the fingers) do it? What would hold one back?
Cognitions. Adapted neural responses. Chemical changes in the brain that make even the most compliant and strong-willed individual cry at the thought of not being able to rack up the miles on the road.
The body is a powerful engine and it’s not a sign of weakness or surrender to seek the aid of others. Friends and family. A great treatment team. Support of all kinds. From co-workers. From God. From online friends. From me (send me an email–I’ll listen). Support from others is necessary and vital. And in the end, that love and care was what enabled me to overcome hurdles when I physically and mentally could not.
And then my third lowest point happened. I’ll write about that piece in my next post. But do any of these exercise addiction and eating disorder issues resonate with you? I would love to hear what you have to share!