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The Pull and Strain of Exercise Addiction in Quarantine

We’ve never had more time to work out. But in a culture that places so much virtue on being healthy, exercise addiction is hard to identify — and even harder to treat

In the beforetimes, my exercise could be considered average. I’d go to yoga once or twice a week, and I’d occasionally run a lazy 11-minute mile. But when we went into quarantine in March, YouTube yoga wasn’t enough to burn off my anxieties, so I went into full-blown apocalyptic training mode. I ran up to 20 miles a week, completed the catalogue of MadFit’s high-intensity training videos and planked whenever I had the chance. When my doorknob fell off due to shoddy craftsmanship, I told myself it was because I was so jacked. On the advice of my colleague Luke Winkie, I even combined vices and worked out while catching a buzz, but inevitably tweaked my hip doing squats after two White Claws. Do not do that. 

But I was sober when I hit rock bottom late one Saturday night. I started a Yoga with Adriene video after running five miles that morning, and promptly fell asleep. When I peeled myself off the floor two hours later, it was clear that I was no longer chasing tighter abs and a better butt. I was chasing a high that had become harder to harness the more I leaned on exercise. “Exercise addiction is becoming a problem in the pandemic, especially because people are looking for a way to cope with all the unknowns by doing something that makes them feel in control,” clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho tells me. 

Prior to 2020, exercise addiction was difficult to define, as it isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM–5, as its own diagnosis. Instead, it’s listed as a symptom of eating disorders like bulimia. Likewise, exercise addiction differs from drug and alcohol addiction since the brain doesn’t develop a chemical dependency where it’s needed to function. Similar to having a gambling problem, exercise addiction is more of a compulsive behavior people develop at the expense of their own well-being. 

However, Ho says you don’t need to have a diagnosable eating disorder or chemical dependency to develop an exercise addiction. Though it can vary from person to person, there are some basic warning signs that you might be addicted to working out — e.g., if your tolerance has built up to the point where you need to exercise for several hours to feel the same effects, if you exercise when you’re sick or injured and if not being able to exercise causes interpersonal conflict and mental distress. “It can become all-consuming as people become more addicted to the dopamine feedback loop that exercise produces,” Ho warns, “and they start to ignore other ways of coping and utilize this one form of coping instead.”  

As much as working out for less than an hour is healthy, once you get to the two- to three-hour range, “your body perceives it as a fight-or-flight situation,” Ho says. And so, instead of getting a boost of natural feel-good chemicals from exercising, our brains produce more cortisol and adrenaline, which have been linked to everything from cancer to heart disease to depression, to adapt to the stress you’re putting your body through. “The human body and mind are really adaptable to short periods of stress,” Ho continues. That’s not the case, though, over a long period of time. “Think of our ancestors running away from a lion — after about an hour, they either get eaten or get away and rest.”

Once we exercise past our tipping points, it also has a negative impact on our immune system, depleting it rather than enhancing it. One study found that when mice were infected with influenza, 82 percent survived when they exercised 20 to 30 minutes a day, compared to only 43 percent of sedentary mice. More surprisingly, mice who exercised for 2.5 hours a day had the lowest survival rates at only 30 percent. Of course, we aren’t mice, but data from the 1998 flu outbreak in Hong Kong revealed that people who exercised more than five days a week were at a greater risk of dying, on par with those who didn’t exercise at all. Meanwhile, survival rates were highest among individuals who exercised three times a week. 

There is evidence, too, that people who over-exercise may be more vulnerable to respiratory viruses like COVID-19. Research on college football players and cross-country runners indicates that when they were training, they experienced lower levels of the antibody protein known as immunoglobulin A, or sIgA, which helps the immune system neutralize viruses. SIgA is particularly important when it comes to fighting upper respiratory tract infections. To that end, when athletes experienced symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, sIgA levels were lowest.

Despite all the scientific reasons to cut back on working out, I still felt defensive about my quarantine habits. But before I could argue with Ho about it, she assured me that my reaction is common. “When people criticize or point out an obsession, the person with the obsession dismisses it as jealousy or a lack of understanding,” she explains. 

Moreover, working out is an “egosyntonic” behavior, or a habit that affirms our ego. And egosyntonic behaviors like exercise addiction and workaholism (and more recently, orthorexia and healthism) can be difficult to correct even after family and friends become concerned, because the person indulging in it can usually find positive feedback elsewhere. “I’ve seen this wreak havoc within families, cause arguments with partners and even impact highly functioning people who are CEOS of big companies and physicians and firefighters on the front line,“ Ho says.

What, though, can I and others do about it?

Certified personal trainer and nutrition counselor John Fawkes recommends limiting exercise to four or five solid days a week. “That’s more than enough for the average person to maintain a healthy fitness level. More than that, and it’s likely you aren’t giving yourself proper rest days,” he says. “Even low-impact workouts like yoga or hiking should be done in moderation. Your body isn’t a machine. It needs full, active rest days to repair and replenish itself.” 

Fawkes also suggests cognitive behavioral therapy. If that’s too daunting, Ho advises keeping a joy list — which is like a combination of a to-do list and a gratitude list — of small active things you can do to make yourself happy throughout the day. “These can be tiny things like making a nice cup of coffee or playing a full round of golf, which obviously takes longer,” she says. Working out can be on there — just like making a fancy martini or an indulgent meal — but if that’s the only thing you’re checking off week after week, you probably want to consider cutting it. “If you’re in a stressful situation, shoving gratitude down your throat isn’t going to work. But doing something that makes you happy is always going to work,” Ho says. “Even if it just brings you joy for 10 to 15 minutes, all that adds up over time.”

After literally running myself into the ground, cutting back to four or five days a week of exercise has been pretty easy. I’ve used the extra time to draft my joy list on my phone, which conveniently includes making lists of any kind. Better yet, the handy record of simple pleasures is more useful than my abs will ever be, and I don’t have to flex so hard to find them.