When Exercise Becomes an Addiction

How much of a good thing is too much?

21 Aug 2019 | 10:52

You don't smoke or vape. You have maybe one drink a week. Okay, two. But the only meds you take are the ones your doctor prescribed, exactly as she prescribed them. But are you addicted to exercise?

“All doctors recommend exercise to their patients,” says Lenox Hill Hospital family medicine physician Eric Ascher. “But when your body feels tired, your bones and muscles feel achy and fatigued, that is when your body is telling you it is ready for a break. Not taking that break is when it becomes an unhealthy addiction.”

There are as many definitions of addiction as there are addicts, but what seems common to all is doing something to the point where it actually harms you. As Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham in England puts it: “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives round their exercise.”

He’s right, says University of Hawaii psychiatrist Alayna Yates, who told readers of WebMd that she’s had over-exerciser patients who insisted on running during thunderstorms and working out at inappropriate times, including one “who had to have a run while his wife was in labor.”

Exercise addicts like that tend to think that treating each day as a training session for some mythical ultramarathon makes them healthier. It doesn’t.

Your fitness and ability to exercise involves oxygen and adrenal hormones. When you breathe in, the oxygen in the air goes to your lungs where it attaches to the hemoglobin in red blood cells which flow out to your muscles. The American College of Sports Medicine says how much oxygen you take in and then send out is a standard measure strongly associated with performance and health.

Common wisdom has always been that men are better than women at processing oxygen, but two years ago when researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada decided to test the theory with active healthy young adults, they found that women outperformed men by 30 percent in their muscles’ ability to pull oxygen from the blood, indicating a “superior aerobic system.” Individuals are obviously individual, but sorry guys, in group terms, no amount of huffing and puffing will alter that.

As for hormones, your adrenal glands release three important ones: epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. The first two make your heart beat faster and tighten blood vessels not being used by your exercising muscles. The third hormone, cortisol, breaks down fats and proteins to make glucose which fuels your body. You make more cortisol when you're stressed or working out. If you're really stressed or if you stretch your exercise out too long, the higher levels of cortisol will start to pull protein out of your muscles just as starving people ultimately may begin to digest their own tissues.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that there's a standard of safe and effective exercising for those of us who do not plan to hop a plane to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

Modern research suggests that moderate regular exercise for about half an hour a day is good for everybody and just enough to help ward off such unpleasantries as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. In Manhattan, the best part is you don’t have to pay gym fees to do it. East Side, West Side, plain walking works. It works even better if you include hills like the one from 40th to 41st Street on Madison Avenue or up and down the steps into Morningside Park.

And if that isn't enough to send you on a reasonable walk, consider this: If you run with a young puppy by your side, the authoritative vet-approved PetMD.com says that too much exercise too soon can damage her bones.

Woof.

Carol Ann Rinzler is the author of more than 20 books on health including the best-selling “Nutrition for Dummies” and the award-winning “Estrogen and Breast Cancer: A warning to women.”