When too much exercise becomes an addiction

By ASTRID VERDUGO

It took severe sickness and intervention by a doctor before Pima Community College student Jonathan Fraser realized he was addicted to exercising.

“I was really sick one day,” Fraser said. “I started throwing up and still went to the gym anyway. I was still trying to work out.”

At that point, Fraser realized he was overdoing it.

Exercising six hours a day, every day, was Fraser’s priority in life. He put it before school, work, family and friends.

“Gym was always first,” Fraser said. “I wouldn’t hang out with people… like I’d hang out with them but I’d go to the gym first.”

Fraser’s exercise addiction reached its peak in the years after high school, when all activities revolved around his workout.

“If I had a job interview, I’d schedule it either before or after,” he said. “If it was gonna fall around that time, I’d say I couldn’t make it.”

Fraser’s goal was gaining weight. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a skinny person. He wanted to weigh 215 pounds, and saw physical workouts as a way to add bulk.

“My parents were always like, ‘oh, you’re so skinny’” Fraser said. “I was eating all the time but it wasn’t doing anything. I found the only way I could gain weight was to work out.”

He has now cut back to 90-minute workouts. “I kind of put restrictions on myself,” he said.

Nevertheless, he’s still not satisfied with his build. “I want to be bigger still,” he said. “I still see myself in the mirror and think I’m skinny.”

Fraser hasn’t met anyone else like himself. Most people he knows who struggle with exercise addiction are trying to lose weight.

Pima student Jonathan Fraser now limits his workouts to 90 minutes a day, down from six hours.

Paula Klein, lead instructor for the fitness and conditioning center at West Campus, has also struggled with compulsive exercise. She spent many years running distance races and marathons.

“There was a period during my life when I engaged in bulimic behavior,” Klein said. “I remember very distinctly using running as a way of purging calories. It was almost emotionally painful to use something that I love so much in a negative way to sort of punish myself.”

Klein thinks exercise addiction is usually linked to an eating disorder such as bulimia, anorexia or binge eating. Someone with a tendency toward bulimia may use exercise as a way to purge calories.

“So it becomes sort of a grim activity, as opposed to something that is based on the joy of movement,” she said.

Klein defines addiction as engagement in an activity that’s compulsive and interferes with living a normal life.

As a personal trainer, Klein has dealt with clients who displayed behavior that suggested an exercise addiction or compulsion.

She knew a young man years ago who fit that description.

“I think he had dysmorphia, which is kind of like the male version of an eating disorder,” Klein said. “He looks in the mirror, and he looks great, but thinks he doesn’t look great.”

At the same time, Klein warns against being too quick to judge.

“People who don’t exercise, who dislike exercise, are all too ready to slap the label ‘exercise addict’ onto people who simply are dedicated to and find real joy in being in their bodies and who genuinely enjoy the process of working out,” she said.

Susan Heinrich, West Campus department chair for fitness and sports sciences, has known students who confessed to being hospitalized because of their exercise habits.

“Compulsive exercising is not identified as an eating disorder,” Heinrich said. “But it’s in that list of behaviors that often accompanies an eating disorder.”

She called eating disorders one of most difficult mental illnesses to treat, and noted that anorexia is probably the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

Someone who genuinely enjoys frequent exercise is not necessarily compulsive, Heinrich said. However, people who don’t feel worthwhile unless they are top-notch athletes may be starting to cross over into compulsive exercise.

“I think where the problem with compulsive exercise comes in, is when people feel like they can’t live without getting the exercise,” she said.

Pima instructor Paula Klein.


Get help if you’re compulsive

Do you have exercise compulsion? If two or more statements apply, talk to your school counselor or health care provider.

-I exercise even when I run a fever or have a bad cold.

-The first thing that comes to my mind each morning is “exercise.”

-When I can’t exercise, I’m so afraid that I will gain weight.

-I break dates with friends and family so I can exercise more.

-When I miss exercise, I feel irritable and depressed.

-I work out rain or shine, even in freezing temperatures or thunderstorms.

-I crave the “high” feeling that I get from exercise.

-I am underweight for my height.

-Losing weight has become more of a priority than maintaining a healthy weight.

Symptoms of exercise compulsion can include:

-An elevated resting heart rate.

-Insomnia.

-Lethargy and fatigue.

-Deteriorating physical performance.

SARA club offers help to addicts

Do you have a problem with an eating disorder, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, sexual addiction or any other kind of addiction? Does someone you love have an addiction?

A Substance Abuse Recovery and Awareness Club meets on West Campus every Wednesday from 3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. in the Student Life office, AG-20.

Meetings are run by former addicts, and are completely anonymous.

For additional information, e-mail PimaSARA@yahoo.com.

Another source of help is Overeaters Anonymous, a group for compulsive overeaters, anorexics, bulimics and compulsive exercisers.

For further information, call OA at 733-0880 or go online at www.oasouthernaz.org.

Jonathan Fraser discusses exercise addiction.

Astrid talks about her goals.

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