While most of the country is concerned with the epidemic of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, exercise addiction on the other end of the spectrum needs attention, too. Running on a treadmill for hours, spinning out of control or climbing stairs to nowhere, exercise addicts have lost their physical, emotional and spiritual balance. Most of the fanatics are women thirty-five to sixty. All desperately fear aging in a youth-oriented society, unhappy about their appearance and their life. Approaching mid-life, some wonder if they have accomplished anything significant.
Even the loveliest woman I spoke to expressed frustration, "I'm too heavy" "Not sculpted enough" "I should eat more protein and fewer carbs." When I told her how beautiful she was, she scoffed, "You're just being nice!" She confided that part of the reason for her rigorous weight lifting and aerobics program was that her pre-teen daughter was learning disabled with attention deficit disorder. The burden rested with her, even when her husband was home.
Another over-exerciser nicknamed the Energizer Bunny, is in her mid-fifties and adheres to a painful exercise program. Working out five hours seven days a week, this tall brunette has lost weight which she didn't need to do, along with muscle mass. Now, she is gaunt with noticeable wrinkles on her face and her body is flabby. She wears layers of makeup and her hair is perfectly blown, but in the eyes of the personal trainers, she looks like she has aged. She is a successful attorney, but her husband ignores her. They no longer make love, so the energizer bunny takes her primal energy and puts them into her workouts.
One woman I interviewed realized how crazy the whole thing was. "I'm not going to look like an eighteen year old at forty-five. I realize that when I have family problems, I over-exercise. When things ease up at home, I can see how crazy this is! Also, working out near the other crazies, I get sucked in; its hard to break away." Apparently, over-exercising is contagious.
This raises the ethical question: Is it a trainer's responsibility to pull in the reigns on a runaway horse? Many trainers at gyms are reluctant to talk since these over-exercisers are the consumers; other trainers try to reshape consciousness. I discussed the problem of exercise addiction with Frank Mikulka, a respected, experienced trainer at the Hollywood Atrium Club in Long Island: "Just last week, I canceled a client, no charge, when I saw her doing two hours of cardio before our session. How much strength can she devote to training? She has reached the point of diminishing returns and I will not train a depleted client and tax her muscles. I have to take a stand even at a personal cost. Next time, she will know that if she wants to train with me, she can't work out for hours beforehand or afterwards."
Like any addiction, over-exercising requires motivation and commitment to quit.The addict needs to meditate even if just for five minutes a day using a personal affirmation for serenity as a springboard to developing her emotional/spiritual side. Alternatively doing some sort of moving meditation, like going on a nature walk, will help align body and mind. Journaling during the day helps expose the root of unhappiness. Many deep thoughts emerge while one is writing. The goal of meditation and journaling is to increase focused attention. Instead of generating wild, distracted energy, the exerciser would concentrate her energy. Another goal would be to cultivate an open presence which means to be acutely more aware physically and spiritually of every action, to be in the present moment, participating and observing at the same time.
Instead of eroding joints, doing internal organ damage, perpetuating depression, the over-exerciser needs to develop basic Zen attributes to heal holistically.That means rediscovering the truth through personal experience and becoming flexible with ones workout regimen. Make stretching an integral part of the routine. By stretching the body instead of contracting or pounding it into submission, the spirit will yield to more flexible thinking. Ultimately, home and work relationships will become less stressful.
The over-exerciser needs to change her word choice: To begin statements with "I feel," instead of "I think." She needs to constantly ask herself, "How does it feel?" The exercise addict no longer feels her body or sees how beautiful she really is. The mind can rationalize anything. Feelings are more honest. Recovery begins with the first step of inner contemplation, not stepping onto a machine at the gym.
Debbie Mandel, MA is author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. She is a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker and a personal trainer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WLIR 92.7 FM NY and has been featured on radio/TV and print media. For more info, visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com