Exercise Addiction and Recovery: Schreiber and Hausenblas

On exercise addiction, Katherine Schreiber, in XOJane:

Here’s the thing — there’s nothing wrong with benefitting from the upsides of regular physical activity. (Improved mood, confidence, reduced aches and pains, enhanced longevity, better focus and memory — I mean, what’s not to love?)

But there is something wrong with using constant motion and obsessive adhesions to calorie-burning or weight-lifting rituals as excuses to cop out from the rest of your life.

What specific human behavior might you least likely associate with addiction?

How about physical exercise? Because really, as physical activity and healthy aging expert Heather A. Hausenblas, PhD, asserts (US News), “(M)ost of us don’t engage in enough [emphasis mine] exercise. In fact, only 20 percent of U.S. adults meet physical activity guidelines.”

Hausenblas knows, though, that among regular exercisers there are risks for overdoing. Along with another author she’s written The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, just out this week.

How is this issue best diagnosed? There are seven possible criteria included in the Exercise Dependence Scale designed by Hausenblas and Danielle Symons Downs, PhD. Meeting three or more of these is likely to prove significant. A summary (Greatist.com):

  1. Tolerance: Needing more and more of the activity to achieve its initial effects.
  2. Withdrawal: Increased agitation, fatigue, and tension when not exercising.
  3. “Intention Effect”: Exercising for longer than intended on most trips to the gym.
  4. Lack of control: Difficulty scaling back the duration and intensity of exercise.
  5. Time Spent”: Funneling exorbitant chunks of our day and night towards fitness-related activities.
  6. Reduction of Other Pursuits: Avoidance of social engagements that don’t involve exercise, cancelling plans, or showing up late for work in order to exercise longer.
  7. Continuance Despite Injury: Not taking enough time off to heal despite your doctor repeatedly raising judgmental eyebrows.

How many of us meet the Exercise Dependence criteria? Approximately 0.3 to 0.5 percent.

Who’s most likely to develop a disorder of this type? According to Schreiber, research shows that the following personality traits may put one at higher risk: extraversion, neuroticism, and low agreeability. “After all, extraverts are more energetic and inclined toward excitement; neurotics are more preoccupied with appearance and health; and less agreeable folks are more competitive, self-centered, and stridently mistrusting of anyone who tells them to slow down.”

What kind of treatment is available? Having a therapist knowledgeable about all kinds of addictions helps, of course. The harm reduction model is mentioned by Schreiber as being particularly useful.

Schreiber’s conclusion about her own struggles: “…No piece of fitness equipment can strengthen the parts of me I feel are too weak to be seen by society. Nor can any cardiovascular routine slim down the aspects of myself I fear might be too much for others to handle. And with the help of a trusted therapist, an incredibly patient and loving boyfriend, my parents, and my true friends, I’m learning to accept, and take a stab at enjoying, those segments of ‘me’ that I’ve long tried to suffocate.”

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