Why It’s So Dangerous To Assume That ‘Fit’ Equals ‘Healthy’

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Several of my friends have recently confided that they feel as though their partner is cheating on them. It’s not a work colleague or a clandestine internet affair. Their partner’s new great love is exercise.

My friends wake up to an empty bed after their partner has snuck out for a quickie — a 15k run before work. And if their partner isn’t putting in overtime at the gym in the evenings, they’re moaning on the couch with icepacks on their swelling. Saturdays are spent training and Sunday is wiped out by recovery.

Children’s birthday parties and wedding anniversaries — also known as ‘life’ — are an irritating interruption to their training schedule.

Vanessa Alford.Vanessa Alford.

According to former elite marathon runner, Vanessa Alford, exercise addicts are not only jeopardising their relationships; they’re seriously risking their health.

Alford should know. She’s a former exercise addict, who wrote about her experience in Fit Not Healthy, a cautionary tale of what overtraining can do to your body.

‘I was going for my usual 12 km run one day — which sounds a lot but it wasn’t for me at the time — and about half way through I started feeling lightheaded and unbalanced,’ she says. ‘I suddenly felt like my legs weren’t connected to me. It was like they had a mind of their own and I wasn’t in control of them.’

For six months after that run, Alford was so fatigued she was unable to get out of bed. And for four years she constantly suffered from neurological symptoms.

‘I felt drunk 24 hours a day,’ Alford says. ‘I felt foggy in the head. I struggled to concentrate when I was talking to someone, and my memory suffered. I had symptoms down the back of my legs, feeling like the skin was being stretched, pins and needles, and shooting pains.’

Despite what her body was telling her, she couldn’t stop exercising.

‘I had a lot of people around me telling me to slow down and put on weight — parents, partner, doctors — and I would think, “What do you know? You’re not a marathon runner”.’

Alford finally stopped her extreme training and gained weight in order to get  pregnant.  Within a matter of months her debilitating symptoms had disappeared.

At the peak of her overtraining, Alford didn’t recognise that she was caught in the grip of an unhealthy obsession. With the wisdom of hindsight, this is her list of tell-tale signs that you’re addicted to exercise.

1. You ignore every warning sign not to exercise.

Injury, fatigue or boredom, exercise addicts push themselves way past the limits of good sense. Resting their body is a sign of laziness or weakness, and taking time off from training is just plain distressing.

In Fit Not Healthy, Alford writes that she tried to ignore sharp shooting pains in her toe in order to complete a training session for a marathon in Thailand. A scan later showed that she had a stress fracture at the base of her third toe.

2. You’re fit but you don’t feel great.

Exercise is about feeling good about yourself, right? Not if you’re an exercise addict. It’s all about controlling and pushing your body to its limits — and beyond.

‘I would often wake up in the morning feeling tired. My legs were heavy, my heart was racing and I knew I should rest but I’d tell myself, “I managed to do an hour yesterday, I can do an hour today,”‘ says Alford, who would frequently run 14 times a week.

3. You have to exercise every day to feel normal

Like other addictions, whether it’s alcohol or gambling, exercise addicts only feel like themselves when they’ve put in a training session for the day.

‘Anyone who is exercising seven days a week is either overtraining or on their way to overtraining,’ says Alford.

4. Training is your top priority

‘If I was invited to a social event, I accepted only if it didn’t interfere with my training schedule. If I was tired, I trained. If I was sick, I trained,’ Alford writes in Fit Not Healthy.

‘If it meant not seeing my partner or not going out to dinner with friends because I wanted to get up early for a long run the next morning, then so be it. That was the way it was.’

5. You have an unhealthy relationship with food

‘I used to be obsessed with every calorie I consumed.  If I ate more than my calorie allowance I would feel guilty and lazy and make myself go for an extra run.’

It wasn’t enough for Alford to be a runner, she also had to look like one. Despite being a physiotherapist with specialist training in nutrition, she kept her body-fat so low that she stopped menstruating.

‘I knew it was the result of my training and low body-fat levels,’ she writes in Fit Not Healthy, ‘ but I didn’t care enough to do anything about it.’

Alford’s advice to exercise addicts is to think about what’s causing your obsessive behaviour so you can work out how to address it.

‘Ask yourself what is driving you to exercise to extreme. Is it to run fast, is it to keep your weight low, or is it to cover up other problems in your life?’


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