Thursday, 29 August 2013

Exercise Addiction: Silent Killer and Tragic Taboo

There’s a girl at the gym who’s impossibly thin.
When she rows, I see every tendon in her shoulders protruding through translucent skin. Her kneecaps stick out like small plates of armour and when she runs she has to hoist up the waistband of her extra small jogging pants every few steps to stop them from riding down.
Her eyes are set deep in her pale face, a face that always looks troubled and pained but that also reflects a steely determination to compulsively keep running. Keep exercising. Keep burning calories.
I’ve seen her in the changing rooms where she keeps herself to herself, seeking out the locker furthest away from everyone else, carefully draping a towel around her skeletal frame when getting changed, fearsome that some critical eye might catch a glimpse of her naked body – often but not always – covered in scars and wounds.
She’s petrified but while she thinks she might be alone, she’s not.
Millions of girls all around the world, but predominately in affluent developed areas, are addicted to exercise. I’ve pointed this out to people before who fail to understand the graveness of this affliction. 
“I wish I were addicted to exercise,” they say. “Imagine genuinely wanting to go to the gym or on an early morning run.”
But anyone who thinks that, simply has no clue.
Imagine not allowing your body a day of rest, instead battling through exercise after exercise only permitting some respite when the lactic acid burn is bordering on unbearable and your stomach feels like it’s about to eat itself.
Image trying to mask hunger by guzzling gallons of water and numbing the pain with ice baths. Imagine feeling the urge to punish yourself every time a morsel of fat or sugar crosses your lips. The guilt, the anxiety, the restlessness, the sorrow.
Unfortunately it’s all too common.


Hundred of thousands of girls in the UK alone are currently thought to be suffering from exercise addiction which often goes hand in hand with anorexia or bulimia.
The common denominator is unblemished discipline, sky high determination and an unquenchable thirst to adhere to the beauty ideal portrayed in today's society.
Everything - from TV to magazines, films, photos, paintings and even advertisements - convinces us that women should have svelte waists, toned stomach, firm buttocks and shapely calves that taper into dainty ankles.
And yes, perhaps men do prefer women to look like that than like a 5 foot 4 mere mortal who wears a size 12, bites her nails and occasionally eats Nutella from the jar with a spoon. But is that really a good enough excuse to make us sick?
I'm a firm believer that personal trainers and fitness professionals need to do more to educate about the risks of addiction. Too often we're told that we don't work out enough, eat too much meat, sugar and fat, but how often are we told about the dozens of girls who have suffered fatal heart attacks or other vital organ failure as a result of malnourishment and excess physical and psychological stress?
At risk of sounding like a recorded message at the end of an episode of Jeremy Kyle - don't suffer in silence.



The root of exercise addiction is often deeply buried and while it usually superficially stems from a low sense of self-worth, it's more often the case that women - and occasionally men - who suffer, are battling a deeper depression.  
I've come to believe that eating disorders and exercise addiction are merely a symptom - a cry for help if you like - and that treatment has to centre on the origin and genesis.
There are dozens of charities that try to reach out to sufferers of mental illnesses but one that I have found particularly effective is MIND.
MIND provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. To date I've raised almost a thousand pounds for MIND by seeking sponsorship for the runs I've done and I intend to raise more.
Running for a charity gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you're making a change to people's lives, but you also benefit from the support they offer you in return.
MIND is excellent at sending out e-mails with training tips and putting you in touch with other runners who are raising money for the same cause. Cheesy, I know, but maybe the old adage that “TEAM” stands for “together everyone achieves more”, really is true?



Unfortunately though, beyond raising awareness, campaigning and seeking sponsorship, there is little most of us can do to break the vicious cycle that exercise addicts find themselves in.
Because it’s a disease borne out of discipline, there's a good chance that sufferers will brush off comments of concern from training partners, friends and loved ones as mere hurdles to overcome.
It's only when the sufferer truly admits to being in trouble, really sees that he or she has pushed things too far that the process of recovery can begin.
Depending on how severe the addiction is, recovery can take years and require the help of trained physicians, therapists and counselors.

And all the while, the sufferer is still likely to be confronted with billboards, advertisements and other media telling her she eats too much and doesn't exercise enough.Telling her she needs to detox, needs to slim, needs to diet and cleanse. Telling her that resting is weak and relaxing is lazy - that without those slim hips, toned abs, dainty ankles and bony shoulders, she is nothing.


In the face of this irony of our society, our hands are actually pretty much tied, leaving us with only one option: to counteract unrealistic beauty ideals by being good role models.

Let’s show those striving for what is perceived to be perfection that health – in fact – looks different. Let’s wear our shorts, trainers and t-shirts in a way that shows we’re proud of our sturdy calves and thighs, because without them we’d never get up that hill.

When we run on the treadmill, there are parts of us that wobble, but that’s because if they didn’t, we mightn’t be able to run as much as we want to.

They keep up insulated when we hit the ski slopes, tie us over when we’re hungry and - on a much more basic level – make us females, women, and eventually maybe even child bearers and  mothers.

When I say that we should lead by example, I mean that we should train hard, but rest well and indulge too. Buy a chocolate bar if you fancy one. Buy three if you fancy three.

And if you happen to see the impossibly thin girl in the gym, perhaps just give her a smile. You might not be able to cure her, but let’s at least remind her that she’s not alone and that if she wants to get help, it is out there.

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