Well-Being//

Addicted to Exercise

Confused and grieving, a college freshman seeks solace in pursuit of the perfect workout

During my freshman year of college, I faithfully kept a journal. I’d never done so successfully, though I’d often tried. My writing resolve always peters out after a few weeks. This time, however, was different: This was my exercise log. It began the spring of my high school graduation.

I updated it daily, sometimes more. It was a simple, spiral-bound notebook, college-ruled and covered with doodles. At night I tucked it away in my locked file cabinet. This sloppy little notebook was both my pride and joy and my horrible secret.

At 6:30 a.m. on the second day of freshman orientation, while everyone else was sleeping, I crept out of my room. Most of my dormmates had stayed up until about 4 a.m., drinking and gabbing and getting a toehold on the freshman 15 (after all, what’s more collegiate than fattening, late-night, drunken revelry?), but I had gone to bed embarrassingly early so I could rise at dawn to do my workout. I hurried through stretching lest anyone see me. When I wrote it all down in diary a few hours later, I felt cleaner and somehow relieved.

Sept. 4, 2017

· 1:31 min. run (felt clean, no one else outside. Found the local running trail. Prob. did 10 miles.)
· 30 min. Stairmaster at level 9 (very tired, almost quit)
· 40 min. bike at level 5
· set of floor exercises (sit ups, push ups, ab. crunches)
· Plus, the 5 min., run back from gym. (half-mile)

Liz, you must stay “the course,” (the plan) don’t get thrown off by college life, I would tell myself.

As the year progressed, I kept up my furious pace. I arrived at my classes sweaty and breathless. I had just squeezed in a full hour’s run on the indoor track, after all. (Plus the five or six minutes it took to jog to class. Every peripatetic minute was timed, noted, counted.)

I made it to my “Archaeology of Death” class only half the time because it conflicted with the open swim hours at the pool. I would cancel on friends to accommodate my workouts, or not even make plans with them at all. With so many athletic outlets to choose from, I chose them all, from aerobics (step, hi-low) to weights to running — my bread and butter, if you will.

I was already playing varsity lacrosse (until I got cut from the team), but I’d still preface the grueling two and a half-hour practices with my own six-mile run. I always had to do more than anyone else. After I caught the men’s rowing team running up the 14-floor sciences library stairs, I did that, too. Just six days after I sprained my ankle during step aerobics class, my log says I ran seven miles.

Dec. 2, 2017

· 10-mile (1:35 min.) run (felt awful, snow was sh*tty; ankle still achy)
· 1:30 min. swim (mostly crawl, some breast)
· 35 min. bike at level 5
· evening run: 35 min. run after dinner and before movies.

I was seeing a therapist at the time to deal with the recent loss of my brother. Barbara’s office was exactly a mile and three-quarters from my dorm room. I know because I ran to and from my sessions. After another fruitless 50-minute hour, I was ready to seamlessly segue back into “my course” — my intangible, ceaseless pursuit of perfection, of some kind of catharsis through sweat, of a palpable sense of peace and purity.

That winter I remember we were deluged with snow and ice. The streets were a mess. Sometimes they even closed the gym. This threw me into a tailspin of self-loathing, anger and lethargy. I’d mope around heavily, and retreat to the library. This was my black-and-white thought process: If I couldn’t do it all, the run, plus the bike, the swim, the aqua-jogging — if I couldn’t complete “the course” — well, then screw it, the whole endeavor was ruined, I was ruined.

Still, when the roads cleared, I’d begin my solitary orbit anew.

You wouldn’t think so, but there were others like me. I saw them everywhere actually, each of us so desperately isolated in our lonely, seemingly shallow pursuits. We eyed each other suspiciously but never said a word. I could pick another out a mile away.

She arrives at the gym too early and stays too late. There’s a look in her eye: both glazed and frantic. She’s the one in the back of the aerobics class who, during the cool-down, frenetically jogs in place while everyone else stretches languorously. She will not get off that bike (that treadmill, that track, that rower) until she has hit the desired time. 28:35 is not good enough, ever. 28:35 is failure. 30:00 is completion, no excuses. She comes to the dining hall looking like hell — stringy-haired, wild-eyed and clammy. She lies about her hours at the gym and ignores the mounting injuries.

There’s a name for this portrait of excess: compulsive exercise, or exercise addiction. And like the dynamic duo of eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia, it also tends to flourish among college students.

“They start out with positive, healthy intentions,” says Richard Kadison, M.D., chief of mental health services at Harvard University Health Services, “but when it goes bad, it goes really bad. I have treated students who won’t travel because it may interfere with their exercise, or who, after eating one too many bites of a meal, will go out on that 11-mile run, on ice-coated roads, at any time, day or night. An addict becomes powerless to their compulsion and is impaired by it.”

“It’s a control thing,” says Michael Sachs, professor in the department of physical education at Temple University and a specialist in exercise and sports psychology.

“What starts for health and fitness purposes ultimately flips around and begins to control you. You can’t imagine not exercising every day, and when you don’t, you feel terrible, both physically and psychologically.” Richard Benyo, author of “The Exercise Fix” (Human Kinetics, 1990), agrees: “The exercise addict simply has to exercise. Over time, they’ve simply turned a positive thing negative.”

And because exercise is usually such a healthy endeavor, addicts generally receive praise for their efforts, notes Laura Kaminker, author of “Exercise Addiction: When Fitness Becomes an Obsession” (Rosen Publishing, 1998), and this too helps keep the true dysfunction of their daily lives under wraps.

Most exercise addicts know (intellectually, at least) when they have gone too far, says Kadison, and they work very hard to hide the truth about their habits. This secrecy is another characteristic that compulsive exercisers share with those afflicted by eating disorders.

In fact, in Kaminker’s research, almost all exercise addicts exhibit some signs of disordered eating, whether it is a binge-purge cycle, generalized food preoccupation, or overly stringent eating habits.

Although eating disorders generally affect more women than men, “exercise addiction is an equal opportunity condition,” says Sachs, “but men are generally able to disguise it better.” For the bulimic, exercise is a “cleaner” purging technique than the trilogy of old standbys: vomiting, laxatives, and diuretics. For the anorexic, it is one more way to eliminate unwanted calories, one step closer to the see-through wonder of Ally McBeal. For a confused, angry, and grieving person such as me, it was a way to express my problems corporeally, to literally attempt to outrun them.

And it seems like almost every student I talk to, from freshman to doctoral candidate, has a story of when and why they too crossed the line or of how their roommate or best friend took a good thing too far. Take Madeline Caballero, a tall, charming blond senior at Brown University, who could easily walk a runway. Recently she’d told me that she had gone a bit overboard on the “health front” last year. I’d seen her that fall, and she looked different somehow. Her eyes held an edge I’d never seen before. We sat down over coffee last week and talked.

“I had to work out everyday. If I didn’t, I would just feel, I don’t know, awful. Fat, I guess. No matter what, I would fit my workout in,” Madeline began.

“What do you mean, ‘no matter what’?”

“Well, I remember this one night. I got back from the movies with my roommates, and we were all going to a late-night party. Instead, I went to work out. The gym I went to stayed open really late.” There is a sense of ruefulness in her voice.

“Were you the only one there?”

“Oh no! There were other people there. You know… the skinny girls who pump the Stairmaster up to 110 [the highest level on that model] and do 50 minutes straight. They’d stop it after 20 minutes and restart it so they could do another 30 uninterrupted. There’s a 30-minute limit when others are waiting, you know.”

I inquire about her watching other’s machines, something I too used to do, and she admits that it’s become a habit born of competitiveness. She even finds herself trying to read their weight when they input it.

“So many students I know have been, or are, compulsive about exercise,” she says. “My best friend, who’s a junior at Colgate University, became like me, too, last year. She started modeling and they told her to lose weight. I thought, God, if she needs to lose weight, then I really do.”

For Madeline, as quickly as she got into it, she got out. She spent her next semester away from the daily Brown grind. She studied in Europe, where, on a diet of wine, cheese, and French cigarettes, she ultimately rediscovered her balance and got healthy again.

What makes college such a fertile breeding ground for exercise addiction? According to many experts, it’s change and it’s stress: “During college especially, there is a dynamic change in lifestyle and focus, all of which can be very stressful,” says Benyo. It’s a classic example of a coping mechanism, say Kaminker and Sachs.

So what’s there to cope with? For the average full-time college student, there’s no stress from a full-time job or children to raise. But there is a unique set of pressures in the collegiate bubble, where you’re surrounded by so many young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed peers, all vying for the same guys/girls, the same jobs, the same professors’ attention.

And perhaps this simply results in more competition and narcissism — the desire to be thinner, prettier, more popular than the rest. Gather together a couple thousand students and throw them in a pressure-cooker environment, and you’ll undoubtedly see some of their determination to get mangled, mutated, or misdirected.

For so-called purists of the body, exercise becomes an acceptable stress release, a veritable Surgeon General-sanctioned addiction. In fact, some experts say that there may be a physically addictive component to exercise. “When exercise addicts get injured (which they often do) and have to stop for a while, the removal of those feel-good endorphins (aka “the runner’s high”) can be very difficult … they can really go into a depression,” says Benyo. Sachs actually likens it to the nicotine withdrawal that cigarette smokers can encounter — one part physical, one part psychological.

In addition to the stress, there is the sudden freedom, the unpredictable lifestyle where no two days are exactly alike. Exercise becomes about control then — a way to somehow reign in a topsy-turvy life. The danger comes, says Sachs, when exercise becomes the only coping mechanism, when the person is not able to tap into other alternatives, when she’s unable to take off that sunny afternoon to goof off with friends. “It’s a vicious cycle,” says Kadison. “An exercise addict feels like if they don’t do it, something awful will happen to them.”

For me to tell my story is tantamount to admitting that I was an alcoholic. I’m embarrassed of how extreme I was. I’m ashamed of how harsh and crazy my thoughts were — toward the innocent jogger next to me, toward my classmates, toward myself. I worked hard at changing after freshman year. I loosened my grip on my crazy “course” so that I could actually do some real courses. I relearned how to hang out, goof off, order pizza at 3 a.m., sleep disgustingly late and nap often. In short, I became a normal college student.

It wasn’t easy though, and sometimes I catch myself thinking in my old ways. I still feel a little jealous of people who do more than I do and it remains hard when unforeseen circumstances — travel plans, injuries, deadlines at work — interfere with my workout plans for more time than I’d like.

This summer, I successfully trained for a mini-triathlon without going overboard. After so much time exercising with no clear purpose, and gaining nothing more than a tattered notebook and a battered body, I finally had something concrete to shoot for. And while I was out there, I began to notice the scenery, to breathe in the air, to listen to my body. I’ve found a way to work out my body without wrecking my soul.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.