Confessions of a former Fitness Addict

Author: Livon Yeow / Photo credit: Bruno Nascimento.

My longest workout streak to date is something like 12 days. That includes multiple workouts on the same day. Lunchtimes, after work, occasionally before work too.

Did I have a problem? Of course not. I was just being super fit and healthy!

Does this sound familiar, either to yourself or somebody you know?

In fact, I was exercising so much by early 2015 that I injured myself and was forced out of action for weeks. For some this really isn’t a big deal but I’m pretty sure there are a number of you reading this who are thinking the same thing. Some variation of:

  • ‘OMG I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t work out’
  • ‘What would I do?!’
  • ‘Wait, I’m going to have to sit still? For how long?!’
  • ‘I’d be miserable’

And yes, I was. It was the most agonising weeks of my life. Just as bad, if not worse than being in a leg cast the entire summer after graduation – I still have one skinner leg than the other for that effort. See I’m a naturally active person and find it very difficult to sit still for long periods of time. 5 minutes of meditation? A work in progress. Sitting next to me in a cinema? Not recommended. If I haven’t moved for more than a few minutes, then it probably means I’m asleep.

So it was exactly the wake-up call I needed. And the reason I’m sharing this is to bring more attention to what feels like an under-addressed issue as a former consumer, and now as somebody who works in the industry and has more responsibility for the health and wellbeing of others. Because it can be avoided.

At this point I do need to digress and say that this topic is viewed by some as being a controversial one – the idea that exercise can be an addiction. Needless to say, this isn’t a piece aimed at those wanting to get more active! Many of us have seen worldwide obesity figures and know that exercise is good for the prevention and treatment of a number of diseases as well as those dealing with mental health issues. An article this year by Laura Hill of Welltodo sites that current levels of inactivity currently costs the UK £20bn a year and is responsible for 37,000 deaths.

However, experience requires me to address the fact that over exercising is just as valid a conversation to have as is inactivity, as it puts (admittedly still a minority of us) at risk of some of the following:

  1. Physical fatigue, leading to injuries
  2. Lack of results, linked to the body not getting enough rest to adapt to training
  3. Irritability, linked to a reliance on endorphins for that ‘hit’
  4. Isolation, and as a result a negative impact on relationships

The list could go on.

The reason that this conversation is now more important than ever is because the industry is booming, not just in the UK also but worldwide – in the US and as far afield as China. The UK Fitness industry is currently estimated to be worth £4.4 billion, up 3.2% on 2015 with memberships up by 5.3%. For the first time ever, member numbers have exceeded 9 million. This is equivalent to 1 in every 7 people in the UK being a member of a gym (Source: LeisureDB.com). Globally, the ‘wellness’ industry is now estimated to be worth $3.72 trillion (Source: Global Wellness Institute). A rise of 10.6% over the last two years. Which means that this phenomenon of over-exercising, and indeed conditions such as orthorexia – an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy looks set to become more of a concern.

So what are some of the signs that you may have an exercise addiction?

  1. The inability to take rest days
  2. Feeling very down after a day or two of not exercising
  3. Making excuses not to spend time with others (friends/ family/ a significant other), in order to work out
  4. Wishing you were at the gym or in a class instead of in the middle of a social event or interaction
  5. Spending an inordinate amount of time scheduling in your workouts
  6. When your workout wardrobe exceeds the size of your normal wardrobe. And you have a day job!

What was really fascinating was that after embarking on a bit of a personal development journey this year – for business reasons, and also to learn from other coaches, I realised that having inadvertedly worked through some of my ‘stuff’ I no longer had the drive to work out any longer. There was no guilt around missing workouts. I didn’t ‘need’ to do them. On the one hand I acknowledged that I had to for my longer term health and now also because it’s work. However, the unhealthy dependency has shifted. I don’t work out for the endorphin kick anymore. I work out now for the fun of it. For the community of it. For the challenge of seeing what this particular human body I was lucky enough to be given is really capable of. As opposed to trying to prove anything to anyone, including myself. It’s a good place to be.

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The point of this post is really to add to the conversation around the topic of fostering a healthy attitude towards exercise, and have it be something that is more openly talked about and addressed. I suspect that one of the reasons that it’s not is because in part, it could affect ‘business’ in the short term.  And yes I say the short term because we all know that real long term gains start with small consistent efforts. You only have to look at crash diets to know this. In addition, having fewer injuries will not only improve gym/studio/client retention rates but also leave you fewer problems to deal with. Nobody likes admin. As a result, general happiness levels increase all round.

If you work in the coaching space, are a fitness professional or have experience dealing with behavioural addictions I’d love to hear your views and have them potentially feed into a workshop I’m developing for Jan/Feb 2017. If you’d like to get involved in any capacity please do drop me a line or fill out this short survey here.

In the meantime, I’d love to get the conversation going all over social media and start a whole community around this topic. The hashtag I’m championing is #liv360fit for any posts that raise awareness of the issues of extreme behaviour within the Health and Fitness space.