Defining Exercise Addiction

May 24, 2023 | Tips & Tricks for Recovery

Welcome to a new episode of the Period Recovery and Fertility Podcast. In today’s episode, we are going to talk about Exercise Addiction.

In this Episode

Understanding what exercise addiction looks like

Why Exercise Addiction isn’t a stand-alone issue

How exercise addiction plays into period loss

Red flags for exercise addiction

When a full exercise break may be necessary

My approach for healing from exercise addiction

Podcast Transcript

Lindsey Lusson  00:00

All right, everybody. Welcome back to a new episode of solo episode on the period recovery and fertility podcast, I am so excited to visit a little bit more about a topic that might be even a little bit more taboo than period loss. And that is defining and understanding what exercise addiction is, and looks like and how you can assess whether or not this may be something going on with you. Now, I do want to start with a disclaimer, as a registered dietitian, it is out of my scope of practice to diagnose anyone. So please know that the information in this podcast is strictly informational. If some of the things I talked about today are causing some feelings or concerns with you personally, I highly encourage you to reach out to a health care professional, ideally, a therapist who works with eating disorders and a therapist who is licensed and able to help you work through whatever may be going on with you.

So with that being said, let’s jump in and talk a little bit more about exercise. And maybe how to kind of figure out where this blurred line may be between being dedicated as an athlete to your exercise routine, and where it might actually be becoming a disorder, something that is unhealthy for you. So let’s start by trying to define what is exercise addiction. And exercise addiction is actually not in the DSM 5, which is the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. So this is what psychologists use to treat and diagnose mental health disorders. The reason why exercise addiction is not a standalone issue. And the DSM five is because much of the red flags and things that are coming up with what we see in exercise addiction is typically part of an eating disorder. So whether it is a restrictive eating disorder, it is part of a purging eating disorder like bulimia, or it’s some sort of eating disorder not otherwise specified. A lot of times, exercise addiction goes hand in hand with some form of eating disorder and disordered eating. This is typically how it presents and the clients that I’m working with that are struggling with period loss, or irregular cycles related to over exercise and under eating. So just as a little background, with HA hypothalamic amenorrhea, it is almost always related to some level of under fueling whether it is 90%, more about the exercise and 10% more about the nutrition, there is almost always some under fueling going on when somebody loses their period with hypothalamic amenorrhea. Sometimes the underfilling can be unintentional.

Granted, if you are a Ironman athlete, or you are running 100 mile races, it can be very easy to not meet your energy needs with that high level of training. But that is more rare. More often than not what I see with women losing their period is there is some sort of disordered eating that’s going on leading to the period loss. A lot of times too, there are if we could think about exercise addiction on a spectrum of true exercise addiction versus tendencies toward an exercise addiction, I think that most women who struggle with period loss in Ha are somewhere on that line and that spectrum. And so as I’m talking through these things today, you know, be thinking about the things that resonate with you and the information that doesn’t resonate with you. That’s simply just information for you today.

So the best way that I have seen exercise addiction defined is kind of talking through a couple of points around tolerance, withdrawal, loss of control, intention, time reduction in other activities, and continuing so I’m going to kind of talk through each one of those points in helping you understand like, what is it to exercise addiction, and then maybe even talking through some red flags that may be going on with you or maybe you’re going on with a loved one if you’re kind of listening to this podcast and thinking about a sister or a friend or maybe your partner. So again, whole purpose of this is to kind of define and talk a little bit more about this issue. So when we talk about tolerance, are we thinking about the person who goes for a run and feels a high or a sense of accomplishment or some sort of buzz, you know, we talk about the runner’s high. I don’t think that in and of itself is a bad thing. Again, as we’re talking through these things, tolerance, withdrawal, loss of control intention, time, I want you to think about someone experiencing all of these things versus experiencing just a couple. Another one is withdrawal. So if the withdrawal from exercise leads to feelings of anxiety, irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, that, again, is kind of a sign that someone may be struggling with an exercise addiction, loss of control, I think that this one is pretty big. So maybe you are the type of person who plans to go for a 20 minute run, and then it turns into a two hour run, if you feel like you are not able to stop exercising, or you are not able to stick to limits with exercise, whether they’re self imposed limits, limits given to you by a coach, or, you know, maybe even limits given to you by like a family member. That would be you know, something that I would think is concerning. Time spent exercising, and I think that this could be a little bit relative, what pops into my head, when I think about excessive exercise, be anything over an hour to two hours, depending upon your training, right. So it’s going to be different. If you are training for a marathon, versus somebody who is generally just working out to be healthy, or to be fit, right, if your training requires that you, you know, run for over an hour or run, you know, 15 miles, that’s very different than somebody who is routinely running the same 10 miles every single day without a training plan, or a tapering as they’re leading up to their event. So the time spent exercising definitely matters whenever we’re talking about addiction. I think another one too, that’s really important is thinking about reduction in other activities as a result of the exercise. So maybe you find that you are no longer interested in going to the work happy hours because you have to go to the gym. Or maybe you are finding that you have less time for social activities, or maybe even activities related to your job, because you’re spending so much time exercising. And then finally, the last one that most people consider to be part of what we would consider the quote diagnostic even though this isn’t part of the DSM five. But another thing that I think we’re often looking for when we’re defining a true exercise addiction is continuing to exercise despite knowing all of the things above and despite knowing that exercise might be severely impacting your physical and psychological health, it might be impacting your relationships, and you’re continuing to do it. And I would say that, again, not one of these things as a standalone, but kind of all of these things, the tolerance, withdrawal, lack of control, intention, time reduction, and activities, and then continuance continuing to do these things. I think all of these things paired together are going to speak a lot more volume for whether or not a person may truly have an issue. Versus if they’re just experiencing some of these red flags.

Red flags that I see come up and the clients that I have worked with, and things that I think kind of go hand in hand with period loss and Amon Hurry up is just that anxiousness like whenever we are told we cannot exercise or maybe the hour long workout that we had planned gets cut short for a reason X, Y or Z. And we began to feel anxious, irritable, maybe even depressed. I think that that can be a really big red flag. I think it’s important to recognize as an athlete, there are always going to be seasons related to your sport where you are in season and exercising a ton. But all athletes, even elite level athletes do have an offseason. And so if you are training at the elite level, and you are training outside of your training block or your training over and above what’s outlined on your training plan, you are putting yourself at risk for over injury, and it would be a good time to kind of do a self assessment and ask is there maybe an exercise addiction going on as well. Another red flag that I see in my clients that are struggling with Ha is always increasing the amount of time that they spend exercising. So maybe you started out, you know, saying I’m gonna run, you know, four days a week for 30 minutes. And you do that and you really enjoy the exercise, maybe there’s some thoughts and things going on under the surface like, hey, if I exercise for longer, I can burn more calories. If I burn more calories, I can get leaner, I can lose weight, etc, etc. But I think that it’s a red flag, when are 30 minutes four times a week turns into 60 minutes six times a week, and when are 60 minutes turns into 90 minutes and 90 minutes into two hours, right. So we are gradually increasing the amount of time that we’re exercising, you know, like that 30 minute workout is no longer enough.

I think that’s another red flag that we start to see coming up as we’re maybe starting to push in the direction of exercise addiction. Missing out on social events to exercise I think that this is very common in women that are struggling with HA, you may have even built like a whole air quotes lifestyle around fitness, thinking, it is healthy to wake up at 4am and go to the gym and then to go on that three mile walk and then to maybe hit up the gym and do it to a day. And you might even be in a culture depending on your mode of exercise and the people that you hang out with that congratulates this and praises this. But I want you to think about what is my life outside of exercise. And if you find that work, relationships, hobbies are non existent or are suffering because of the amount of time that you spend exercising. That’s something to really think through and even thinking kind of long term like where do I want to be in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road? Do I want to be spending two to three hours of my day exercising, really something to reevaluate especially fertility as a goal of yours. Exercising to maybe cope with stress and uncomfortable emotions. Now, I think this one is a little bit of a gray area, right? Because exercise can be a really good form of stress relief. There are endorphins that are released when we get outside and we move our bodies.

Now, one thing that I find interesting is a lot of the clients that I work with who experience loss and infertility relationship, infertility issues. And experience and fertility issues related to a j are the type of people who can’t seem to get the same feeling or the same release is the word I hear used a lot from low intensity exercise. So physiologically, we have endorphins that are released when we get outside and go for a walk very similarly to when we go for a run. And so I think it is very interesting that a lot of women feel that that needs to be at this certain intensity. And I think that some of it might have to do with just the high, you know, that we kind of talked about earlier from feeling accomplished or like wow, I lifted that much weight, or I ran that many miles, some of it too might be coming from wow, I burned that many calories. And so if you find that you are doing this more and more and more your stress, you have to go for a run or you’re feeling uncomfortable in your body, you have to then go exercise and exercise even more every time you have a bad body image day, you gotta kill it in the gym. I think that it’s really important to learn other tools to manage stress and uncomfortable emotions outside of just exercise. I think exercise addiction can come in very easily when it is our only outlet for stress and coping with uncomfortable emotions.

Another red flag I see in the clients that I work with who are struggling with period loss, and HA is exercising in secret. So maybe you wake up before your spouse or you wake up before your family or you have multiple gym memberships, right? So you are exercising, you know for an hour at the spin studio and then after work, you go take that 90 minute hot yoga class. So having multiple memberships, and not letting a whole lot of people in on the amount of exercise you’re actually doing right. So maybe it’s not necessarily done in secret, but it’s kind of done behind closed doors. And we’re not totally honest with most people, when we really think about how much exercise that we’re doing. Another thing that I see is kind of the downplaying on the amount of movement that might be done. One of the best examples I can give is a lot of my clients say, oh, yeah, but but walking doesn’t count. Like yes, I did the A 45 minute CrossFit class and I go for you know, a three mile walk over my lunch break with my coworker. But that’s just walking, that doesn’t count that is still movement and to the general population, that would actually be considered a decent amount of movement. If you were going on a three mile walk. Another red flag is working out, even though you might be sick, or injured or exhausted, I know what it feels like to feel like you can just push through, right, you’re not that sick, you’re not that injured, you’re not really that tired, or you’re going to have more energy, if you just get that workout in.

I know how that feels. And I also know that if you are stuck in this loop, there may be other things going on underneath the surface. And I’ll share a little bit more about my personal experience with exercise addiction here in a second. But again, red flags you are working out when you are sick with a cold or an upper respiratory infection. Part of a healthy exercise routine is rest resting when you’re sick, resting whenever you have a stress fracture, or a torn ligament or an overuse injury. I would also say overuse injuries are probably a red flag too, if you’re getting a lot of stress fractures, or you’re dealing with a lot of muscle imbalances or tightness, something to kind of pay attention to. And then finally exhaustion, right. So if you work a really busy job, and you have 10 hour days yet somehow or you’re still fitting in an hour long workout at the gym, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But again, if you’re here and you’re listening to this and you’re struggling with infertility and period loss, that might be something I would encourage you to kind of like push into and really think about is like is that workout necessary? And if so, why? Right? Like, what purpose is it serving.

And then finally, the last kind of red flag that I see in a lot of my clients is exercise impacting relationships. And so I think that this could almost be like a whole separate episode, but I’ll touch on it just briefly here. You know, whenever a person is not wanting to really stay out late on a date night. And that’s not to say that you need to stay out till two in the morning, but I’ll just give this example scenario that I’ve heard from a couple of clients a couple of different times is it’s date night, we’re out to dinner, we paid for the sitter, maybe we don’t need this sitter. And you know, maybe your partner is having a really good time and they say, you know, let’s go for dessert, or let’s go catch a movie, or let’s go have a nightcap somewhere. And your gut reaction is no, like, I have to go to bed because I have to wake up from my 5am Run, or I have that spin class in the morning. You know, occasionally this isn’t a big deal. But if this is a very routine thing, and do you feel like you are missing out on things as a result of your workout routine, especially if it’s impacting your ability to be present with your partner or spend time with your partner or be intimate with your partner, you know, one of a one of the really big negative side effects of not having a cycle is having low hormones, low libido, not really having sex drive, vaginal dryness, and all of that can come with over exercising under fueling and over exercising. And so exercise, having that impact on intimacy with your partner as well, I think can be a really big red flag about your relationship with exercise and possible exercise addiction. I think also too, when we’re thinking through these red flags, and we can think through the reverse, we can really think about what we can gain from addressing our exercise addiction and healing from our exercise addiction. Right. So if exercise is negatively impacting our relationships, our relationships can improve and thrive when we aren’t feeling so addicted to going to the gym or getting in our run. If we are working out even though we’re sick or injured, well, taking a break from exercise can allow our bodies to heal so that we can come back stronger, faster, perform better. And then if exercise is really impacting your social life, you know, taking a break from exercise and healing that relationship is going to allow you to be more present as a friend as a spouse, maybe even thrive in your job, get a promotion. So lots of things to gain by addressing this very taboo very sensitive topic.

With that, I want to kind of briefly highlight my approach to addressing tendencies towards exercise addiction and how I help my clients work through these issues so that they can recover their period, experience a fuller life and work towards getting pregnant and restoring their fertility, if that’s a goal, whether it’s now or even, you know, years in the future. And so the way that I approach it really depends upon the person and their relationship with exercise, how many of these red flags are we experiencing? are we feeling like we might be borderline exercise addiction, if if someone is not crossing into the exercise addiction, which I would say is the case for the vast majority of the people that I work with, my approach is kind of a gradual reduction.

Now we know for period recovery, there does need to eventually be some sort of drastic reduction in the duration, the intensity of the exercise that’s done, meaning that we can’t be exercising for hours on end. And we can’t continue to do our CrossFit or high intensity interval training if we want to recover within a timely manner. But I always meet people where they’re at, right, so if we are running for 60 minutes, six days a week, we might start by cutting that down, we might, you know, change the running to walking, we might change the mode of exercise, we might do kind of a step down where we turn, you know, six days a week into four days a week, get to three as necessary, until we can get to where I would want you to be, and where we can both feel confident that you’re on the right track, we’re getting your period back, and we’re going to assess that with nutrition to now that’s the that’s how I approach it with most of my clients, I do get a handful of clients that I feel strongly can benefit from a full exercise break. And this is a really, really hard thing to accept. But what I have found in my personal experience with history of exercise addiction and healing from that, and the clients that I’ve worked with who really struggle again, with some of those addictive tendencies, or where like the 20 minutes very easily turns into two hours of exercise, and they don’t even realize that they’re getting there, the full exercise break can be really, really, really helpful, almost more from a mental side of recovery than from the physical side of recovery, because most people can get their periods back and get pregnant doing some exercise. However, people that are struggling with this true exercise addiction, really need kind of that whole break to do some sort of mental reset, and to do a deep dive into their intentions behind why they’re moving, why they’re moving so much what suffering what could be better, and just really take some time to do some self reflection, learn other tools to cope and deal with stress management and uncomfortable emotions. And by taking exercise out of the equation, we have this blank slate where we can start all over. And it’s almost like exposure therapy because even though it might feel very scary to go 24 hours without exercising, you can do it you are capable. And when you do it, you will realize that the world didn’t stop turning you will realize that you didn’t gain 900 pounds overnight, you will realize that the world goes on life goes on even though he didn’t get that workout in. And as silly as that might sound like you’re just hearing this right now I can guarantee you that doing one day, three days a whole week and just kind of working your way up there. The more that you do it, the more that you realize that it’s going to be okay if you don’t exercise and so that is my approach with some of my clients that are experiencing a lot of those symptoms in mindset around almost full exercise addiction.

And then the next phase rather we do a gradual reduction or a full exercise break is of course reintroduction and that’s something that I focus on more in my face to program once we have periods back and we’re working on regulating cycles for health and fertility.

So if this episode spoke to you at all I would love to hear from you I want you to reach out to me on Instagram is probably where I’m most active you can send me a DM at @food.freedom.fertility I’d also love for you to if this really spoke to you or you feel like other people could benefit from hearing this episode. I’d love to have you share it on social media. Again tag me @food.freedom.fertility. I hope that you found this episode helpful. And if this episode is really speaking to you and you are ready to take those next steps on really addressing like what might be going on under the surface when we think about your relationship with exercise and you are ready to get the support to Explore life outside of exercise discover who you are outside your exercise routine. I would love to help and support you along the way. So I want you to reach out to me over Instagram or click on the link in my Instagram profile. I’ll also link my website in the show notes here. If you want to learn more about my coaching program, my food freedom fertility method that has allowed over 200 women to recover natural cycles, heal their relationship with food and exercise and go on to have natural pregnancies and so I’d love to hear more from you. I hope you found this episode helpful and I hope that you have a great rest of your day today.

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MEET THE HOST
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I’m a fertility nutritionist and registered dietitian who specializes in hypothalamic amenorrhea. My passion is helping women trying to conceive find freedom with food and exercise, so they can recover their period, and get pregnant naturally.

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