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Are You A Fitness Junkie? Part 2

Preventing and Treating Exercise Addiction

It is obviously much better to never become an exercise addict than it is to seek treatment because the road to recovery for an exercise addict can be as long and tedious as it is for a drug addict. In fact, it is a life-long recovery process.

Unfortunately, prevention is not as easy as it sounds because it should start in childhood. Since body satisfaction plays a large role in preventing exercise addiction, developing a healthy body image as a child is crucial. Body image is the "picture" of what we think our body looks like. If we have a healthy body image, we view our body realistically. We know our body has good and bad points but we love ourselves just the same. If we have a distorted body image, no matter how good looking we are, we are not happy with ourselves because we do not believe what we "see".

Your family is the first to shape your body image. If disparaging remarks are constantly being made about your body or if great emphasis is put on appearance, you may believe that you are not a worthy person because your looks are not up to par with the standards of your family.

Many body image experts say that the culture we live in is probably the biggest factor that influences our body image. Everywhere you look today, you see pictures in the media of extremely slim, seemingly perfect bodies of male and female models. These people make up a small percentage of the population. They are not the norm. No wonder that eating and exercise disorders are on the rise.

Connection between exercise and eating disorders.
According to sports psychologist Jack Raglin, experts used to think that exercise addiction was a consequence or secondary symptom of anorexia or bulimia. In other words, the person with an eating disorder developed an exercise addiction because exercising excessively was just one of the ways of getting rid of unwanted calories. But now because of several published studies, they have discovered that it can be the other way around. An obsession with exercise can actually hasten the development of an eating disorder.

Another disorder that is related to exercise addiction is called "muscle dysmorphia". If anorexics think they are fat even though they are skinny, this is the opposite. Men who experience "bigorexia", as the disorder is nicknamed, think that they are not muscular enough even though they have bigger bodies than the average male. Women with this disorder may have beautifully toned bodies but still think they are soft, flabby, and fat.

Awareness of problem is the first step.
The first step is to be aware that you have a problem. Itís hard to fix something that you deny even exists. Some exercise addicts are forced to face the existence of their dependency when they get injured. Other times, it is friends or loved ones who notice the problem. If you find yourself in such a situation, donít make comments about how much weight they have lost, how haggard they look, or how many hours they are exercising. Do tell them that you are concerned about their health. Raglin says that it is important to be supportive and nonthreatening rather than confrontational. No one likes to be told they have a problem but people are more willing to listen if you show how much you love them.

Seek professional help.
Exercise addiction and/or eating disorders are not something to be dealt with lightly. The American Council on Exercise recommends a network of health professionals -- fitness trainer, psychologist or psychiatrist, nutritionist and medical doctor.
The addict needs to cut back on his or her excessive workouts. A fitness trainer can help in designing a program that is effective but time efficient. The trainer should be a good role model in terms of having a fit physique achieved through a normal exercise lifestyle. The addict will not listen to someone who is out of shape and it is dangerous for them to be trained by someone who has the same obsession with exercise. The goal is to make the addict realize that their bodies will not "deteriorate" if they donít do three hours of exercise a day.

The psychologist or psychiatrist will help the addict discover the roots of the problem (low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness, etc). Itís not enough to just stop the compulsive exercise behavior without finding out what are the underlying issues causing it. To do that would be like a drug addict stopping drugs through a detoxification program but without processing the problems that caused him to take the drugs in the first place. The end result is backsliding in a major way or a substitution of addiction. The therapist will also teach the addict healthy ways to cope with stress without running away from lifeís problems. Oftentimes, exercise is not only the sole coping mechanism the addict knows but it is also used to escape or forget problems.

The nutritionist will teach proper ways of eating without gaining weight. This is very important since one of the reasons why people abuse exercise is because of an exaggerated fear of becoming fat.

Finally, the medical doctor is necessary if the addict already has a chronic injury from overexercising. The doctor should work with the fitness trainer to monitor the exercise program.

Additionally, many experts also recommend joining a self-help group that employs the "twelve-step program" similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Support groups give you a chance to share your feelings with other people who have the same problem. I am not aware of any groups in the Philippines dedicated solely to eating or exercise disorders. However, I know of one person who has been helped by joining Alcoholics Anonymous. This would make some sense since the roots of addiction are the same no matter what the substance being abused, be it exercise, alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, shopping, etc.

Family support.
The family is an important part of the recovery process both because of the emotional support that family members can offer the addict and also because they are sometimes part of the problem! Dysfunctional family dynamics can be one of the reasons why the addict has such poor self-esteem. If this is so, the whole family usually needs counseling and therapy too.

Exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle.
Even though drug and exercise addiction have similar roots and symptoms, there is one basic difference. The recovered drug addict can never go back to taking drugs, even moderately. The recovered exercise addict can and should resume a moderate exercise program.

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