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Sweating it Out

by Allie Harcharek
How can something so good for you possibly be bad? A little-known addiction to exercise can cause serious problems.

When Kate Webster hits the trail, it’s just her and her pounding heart. For the 26-year-old, there’s no better feeling than finishing a good long run. Except maybe motivating others to run with her.

“I plan my days around my workout schedule, not plan my workouts around my days,” she says. “Some may say I overdo it, but it’s just because I am so passionate about it. … Fitness is my priority.”

Webster, a lively blonde with an athletic build, describes herself as a “workout enthusiast” with a lifelong passion for staying active—something she shares with her husband, a personal trainer. The Mays Landing resident writes about her physical routine on her blog, Fit Freak 4 Life, posting daily “fitspiration,” photos and exercise routines in an effort to inspire others.

“I (work out) between six to seven days a week,” Webster says, detailing her twice-weekly training sessions with her husband and a love of outdoor trail running. “I don’t like to take off any days, but I do realize my muscles need rest so I usually take a day off a week to recuperate.”

While a commitment to fitness is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, the daily workout session can have a more serious side. And for some, the craving to exercise can lead to obsession.

For Anthony Capozzoli, owner of Smart Bodies Personal Training Center in Marlton, exercise addiction is a difficult subject. “It’s hard to classify (exercising) as an addiction because people view it as being good for you,” he explains. “People can go overboard, though.”

Capozzoli, whose center offers customized fitness programs and nutritional counseling, says he sees cases of excessive working out on occasion with clients who have gone to extremes for various reasons, like personal pressure to meet a goal or maintain a certain body image. Some athletes or fitness enthusiasts may feel guilty after missing a workout, or even angry or depressed. The feeling of stress relief—and the rush of endorphins—after a session can be addicting, he says.

The prevalence of exercise addiction is not thoroughly documented by statistics, but it’s something health professionals are aware of. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), the gold standard for all currently recognized mental health disorders, doesn’t have an entry specifically for exercise addiction, but the dependence on physical activity is a symptom of many other issues, including eating disorders, body issues or anxiety.

Obviously, not all over-exercisers have mental health disorders and not all people exercise for the same reasons. But, the manual explains, exercise becomes excessive when it significantly interferes with important activities or when athletes keep exercising despite injuries or medical complications.

Jeff Schoener, a South Jersey hypnotherapist and neuro-linguistic programmer, works with exercise-addicted clients, among other compulsive behaviors, with nearly 60 percent of his clients coming from Central and Southern New Jersey, including many in Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel and Marlton.

“In many cases, it’s almost as if (clients) are utilizing exercise as a compulsive behavior in order to … help them get beyond something else,” Schoener says. “For instance, I worked with a gentleman who had issues around his perception of his physical appearance, so he was constantly at the gym.”

Schoener’s client physically injured himself by going to the gym too frequently, using exercise to escape his negative feelings about his own body.

“I’ve worked with clients that have, in attempting to get beyond food compulsions or addictions, utilized exercise in a compulsive way,” Schoener says, “where in fact, it also led toward their own feelings of a lack of self-worth. In a sense, their internal gauges are off.”

When working with aspects of addiction and compulsion, Schoener explains there’s often an emotional motivation in order to satisfy a need or cover up some kind of unrelated hurt. In the case of his recent client, Schoener worked to understand why the man felt the need to exercise so frequently in order to help him move past his perceived issue.

From a trainer’s perspective, exercising too frequently can be counter-productive on a physical level. “Your body needs a rest; your joints take a beating every day,” Capozzoli says. “I always recommend when people exercise, they use different muscle groups, different cardio machines, so they aren’t wearing their body down too much in the same way.”

As Capozzoli explains, resistance training is most beneficial during recuperation time. The times that you’re resting are when your body recuperates, he says; if you’re not resting, you’re breaking your body down.

For his clients, Capozzoli suggests five days a week is the most they should work out, incorporating at least two days of rest. “If you break it up with different types of fitness, maybe do yoga or tai chi, your body can stretch as it’s recuperating,” he says, recommending incorporating “mind/body” work instead of just body work.

As Webster sees it, “There are far worse things to be addicted to,” especially when one-third of Americans are technically obese. However, “If you’re not fueling up properly or taking the proper time to give your body rest, then you can run yourself in the ground,” she notes.

“There are so many things you can’t control in this world, but you can control the way your body looks,” she concludes. “If you make fitness a passion, not obsession, you will never stop. It becomes a part of life, and fitness is my life.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
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