August 30, 2013 1:54 PM

Is this addiction?


I have been giving a lot of though about obsession and addiction lately. When I look at my own lifestyle, I see signs of addictive behavior in many aspects. I am not a drug user, nor a smoker, but I find that the things I enjoy in life, the good and the bad, I tend to fixate on, repeat, and escalate. So I had to ask myself, "Is this pattern an indication of unhealthy addiction?"

The reason for reflection has been my left shoulder injury. The soreness has limited my exercise options for two weeks, and I am starting to worry about getting back to 100% in time for the next competition. I stopped working my shoulder after a hard workout and the pain became too much to handle. However, in hindsight, I was in pain for a few days leading up to this. I ignored it at first and "worked through it" and ended the week with short changing one shoulder workout so I would have enough to get through Nancy.

Looking back, I can't deny knowing that the work I was doing was causing me pain that was getting worse each time I pushed it. Rather than back off, I suffered, continued, and made it worse. Now, I reflect on this and think, "What's wrong with me? I knew it was painful, but I kept making it worse. Is this addiction?"

To answer this, I started doing some research into addictive behavior and exercise. There is a ton of information on the subject and I have been able to draw conclusions about myself based on my readings. However, before I get to that, I want to define some terms about the scale of dependence on exercise:

Phase 1 – Recreational
Recreational exercisers are just what you would think, they work out to have fun and increase their fitness level. Skipping workouts is fine.

Phase 2 - At risk
At risk athletes are characterized by their need to work out to relieve stress or escape unpleasantness.

Phase 3 - Problematic
Problematic gym rats schedule their daily routine around their workouts. These athletes will try to push to new limits at every session and experience guilt or depression if they have to miss a scheduled workout.

Phase 4 - Addiction
Exercise addiction, like other addictions, is diagnosed when workouts ARE the athlete's life. They workout mostly to avoid the feelings associated with withdrawal. Working out creates conflicts with work, family, and social commitments. Exercise impacts their ability to function normally in daily life.

Each of these four phases addresses an athlete's motivation, frequency, and the consequences of not working out. As motivation moves away from having fun and toward avoiding withdrawal, the frequency and the feeling that you "need" to work out increases. The impact on life outside the gym increases with each level.

At the same time, there are terms such as "positive addiction" and "negative addiction" that have been in use in psychology circles since the 70's.

A psychologist named William Glaser was the first to differentiate between a negative addiction and what he called a “positive addiction” to exercise.

Positive addiction is characterized by an individual’s love of an activity, which has a positive impact on their physical and psychological wellbeing. The “positively addicted” individual is able to control their exercise participation and schedule it around other important aspects of their life.

In contrast, Glaser described a negative addiction as a compulsive need to exercise that takes priority over an individual’s health, relationships and other interests. If they miss a workout, a negatively addicted exerciser will experience unpleasant emotions, such as depression and guilt, as well as physical symptoms like insomnia.

Since Glaser’s first insights into exercise addiction were published in 1976, several terms have been used to describe the phenomenon, including exercise dependence or obligatory exercise.

Broadly speaking, exercise dependence occurs when an individual performs any type of physical activity at such high frequencies or durations that it becomes difficult for them to stop or reduce the amount of time they spend exercising, even if they are injured or have other commitments. When so much time is devoted to exercise at the expense of other areas of life like work or relationships, the behavior becomes abnormal or dysfunctional.


So, with all these terms and indicators defined, I look at my own track record. I clearly started CrossFit last year in Phase 1 (Recreational) and was quickly in the "Positive Addiction" arena. I was going to CrossFit 2A three times a week and getting healthy. At some point early this summer, I crossed over to something more. I bumped up to an unlimited membership and started competing almost every 2 weeks.

I don't think I work out to relieve stress or escape unpleasant feelings, so I am not Phase 2. Also, my life is not in ruins because of my need to work out. However, Phase 3 (Problematic) fits pretty well. I do schedule my regular, daily routine around getting to the gym, and I have been trying to push myself further every day. I do not have withdrawal symptoms if I can't make it to the gym, though. I just wish I had been able to go. I'm not sad or anxious about it; just disappointed.

Within the Glaser terms, I can see that exercising despite injury looked like exercise dependence. However, I do schedule workouts along side other commitments and can control my participation. Wanting to work out a lot is not the same as needing to exercise all the time.

I concluded that I was in the Problematic Exerciser category and close to exercise dependent. My goal now is to get back to Phase 1 and focus on recreation and fun without injury. This will likely mean a few more days off and more emphasis on mobility and rest.