It’s sometimes seen as an inside joke within a circle of friends or family that you are the one that is ‘obsessed’ with going to the gym. You never eat anything unless it has been meticulously weighed, calculated and timed for efficient absorption – and never would you ever miss a workout. You might even workout several times a day with little to no rest days. If some irritating change to your strict schedule causes you to miss a workout, you may feel compelled to ‘compensate’ in some way, such as restricting your calorie intake or exercising for even longer next time.
Exercise obsession is very real and very serious. It is also unsustainable, as it can lead to injury and sickness due to the strains placed upon your body. However, it is often ignored or even encouraged, particularly within society that promotes working out as often as possible to ‘feel the burn‘, regardless of its effectiveness or effects on your health.
The crux of finding whether you have a problem or not is assessing how exercising – or more pertinently, not exercising – makes you feel. Busy modern lifestyles often throw curveballs that prevents us from going to the gym, but how does that make you feel? If the answer is scared, angry, hopeless, worthless, self-destructive, depressed, anxious or any other synonym for any detrimental emotion that can lead to a negative impact upon your happiness or life in general, you may have a problem.
First of all, I want to make very clear that having any kind of obsession or other mental struggle is not something to be ashamed of. It does not mean you are weak or inferior. All it clarifies is that it needs to be addressed appropriately so you can be fully back in the driver’s seat, ready to accelerate to your next challenge.
As for how we address it – there are a few key components.
The first is changing your mindset. Easier said than done, right? Definitely – but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. The first step in successfully changing your mindset is being aware of what exactly you are thinking leading up to, during and after a stressful event. As silly as it sounds, what I like to do is just freeze my body and just zone in on what thoughts are flying through my head. This allows me to assess my feelings before I instinctively react without considering alternatives.
For example, with someone that is obsessed with exercising, being confronted with the prospect of being unable to visit the gym can create a sense of anxiety revolving around what they will be unable to achieve ‘if I don’t go’.
However, if we can twist these words to instead say ‘what WILL I achieve if I am not at the gym’, we can instead move our focus away from exercise and to other equally important aspects of our lives. For example, spending time with family, studying for an important test, or developing your relationship with your partner.
It can be hard to twist round our thoughts sometimes, though. So another approach could be to write down every ‘threat’ your mind makes about not working out, such as ‘I’ll lose muscle’, or ‘I’ll get fat’, or ‘I’ll get weaker’. Write them down, and then return to them after you have successfully stayed out of the gym. You will find that your fears haven’t come true – and in the case of strength and muscle size, you may even find you have progressed by letting your body rest. You will then be able to use these lists of ‘disproved fears’ in the future to combat any exercise-addiction-related stresses your mind tries to stir up again.
Coping with situations where you are forced out of the gym due to circumstances out of your control is only half of the battle, though. To really beat the exercise obsession, you need to be able to purposefully schedule some time off the gym by your own choosing – not just because a work, family, or school deadline set by someone else happens to coincide with that day. This probably sounds counter-intuitive to some of you, but I promise, especially when it comes to working out, more is not always better. Your body does need good, resistance based workouts to tear down your muscle fibres, that is true. However, you can’t keep breaking your tissues down and down – your body needs quality rest, where your mind and body are not being torn down – to build yourself up again stronger than you were before.
An initial step to lowering the frequency of your workouts could be to replace some workouts with those of a lower intensity, perhaps by trying a new sport, or just for going for a walk. You could recruit some of your friends and family to join you, which would make it an enjoyable social experience too.
Progressing from this would be to extend slowly out of your comfort zone to include more activities that are less sport or exercise based, and instead are more focussed on entertainment. This will keep your mind distracted and your mood high. Again, friends and family could be involved. This means you will still have some very tough workout days but will also now include days where you rest and develop other areas of your life.
Eventually, you will feel more at ease at the idea of not being able to go to the gym because you can schedule extra days off of your own accord without negative impacts upon your physique or strength. You will still be making progress in the gym, yet the rest of your life will also be growing in strength. You will become a more well rounded, balanced person. You may also develop some new hobbies and friends along the way!
By no means am I saying for you to stop exercising altogether. That is not the case at all – your workouts are still very important. I just want you to evaluate your own mindset truthfully and honestly. If you feel like you can’t ever miss a day no matter what, it could be time to reassess.
All of this will benefit you. By having a healthier attitude towards the gym, you may find that your motivation and strength actually increase, especially over the long term. It will also nurture other parts of your life that may have been on the backburner as a result of your reliance upon exercise. Having periodical extra breaks gives your body a chance to recuperate from hardcore training and may even allow you to bounce back stronger than before. In the long term, it will reduce your stress levels and make you feel happier in general, which is never a bad thing.
As someone who has suffered herself with over-exercising and anorexia, I very much know personally how difficult it can be to fight back against your own mind when it is telling you all the bad things that will happen if you ’don’t do this’ or ’do do that’ – but it is possible to take control again. You can do it!