It’s spring. The time of year when sidewalks become full again with runners, spring races begin and people start training for marathon goals. Year-round runners often congratulate themselves when winter is complete for their ability to maintain their habit of running daily, seasonally and yearly. Despite the challenges and obstacles, they have persevered, prioritized and continued to run. However, is this devotion to running always a healthy habit?
Exercise addiction became a concern to exercise scientists 40 years ago when the running boom first began. Once we established the minimal amount of exercise necessary to accrue health benefits, the next question became – can health benefits be diminished with too much exercise?
Exercise physiologists soon established that more exercise isn’t always better. In fact, while the optimal dosage of running in terms of frequency, intensity and duration varies for each individual and their running goals, most professionals will agree that moderate sustained activity is best for gaining physiological benefits. Too much exercise can be just as detrimental to one’s health as too little exercise.
If this is the case, why do so many individuals run more frequently, longer distances, or more intensely than the body really needs? Running at these levels may no longer be providing physiological benefits but they may be fulfilling a deeper psychological need.
Exercise addiction is generally viewed as a psychological and physiological dependence on a regular regimen of exercise that leads to withdrawal symptoms if the activity cannot be done. Withdrawal symptoms commonly associated with an inability to maintain a desired running schedule can be irritability, guilt, anxiety, a bloated feeling, and discontentment. Anyone who has had their running program limited due to injury, illness, or schedule demands can attest to the psychological toll that results.
Exercise psychologists often refer to exercise addiction as both a positive and negative addiction. It can be productive if individuals view running as important to their lives and if they can successfully incorporate this activity into other aspects of their life such as family, friends, and work. Excessive running can be debilitating if lives become structured around running and work and relationships take a back seat. Quite simply, running should contribute to wellness not detract from it.
Oftentimes, I find that runners are quite insensitive to the consequences of their running choices. I’ve worked with Olympians who have failed to see the consequence of their training schedules on their family relationships. Recreational runners who repeatedly run to family gatherings, while their families drive together in the car, and then wonder why they feel isolated. I’ve witnessed wives who call themselves, ‘triathlon widows,’ feel deserted by partners and rely on each other for support. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many cases where unintended life outcomes have occurred because of an inflexible and highly dependent need to run.
So just like you’ve heard throughout the years and in relation to all things – moderation is best. So go ahead and train for that marathon, but consciously invest in the other aspects of value in your life as well. Make sure that running enhances your existence, rather than taking control of your life! It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.