One Great Way to Ruin Your Climbing Career? Get Addicted to Exercise
Feeling tweaks, aches, and pains? Finding it hard to finish your workouts? Believe that more climbing, more hangboarding, more movement is better? You may be experiencing exercise addiction.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Author’s note: Exercise addiction is a serious health condition. Seek help from a qualified health professional if you suspect exercise addiction. Most eating disorder treatment centers can address exercise addiction.
Climbing usually draws people to the sport because of its unique movement pattern. It’s so fun and satisfying to figure out the beta, be completely focused on a route, and see what your body can do. Exercise addiction—also sometimes called exercise compulsion, exercise dependence, anorexia athletica, and obsessive exercise—steals the pleasure from climbing and twists it into a perverse game of see-how-much-you-can-move.
Sarah Gorman, climber and physical therapist from California, describes her experience with exercise addiction as a collegiate climber: “It became an obsessive detour during a well-intentioned fitness journey. Ultimately, it felt like that dream where you are making the motions of running but not actually moving anywhere—frustrating, demoralizing, unsatisfying. Yet it was so enticing, as though the promise would hold up its end of the bargain: More training and less calories = desired outcome. I wanted to believe it. I really felt the spiral spinning when I realized I started using more exercise as a punishment for eating something that I saw as not appropriate.”
Why we fall into the trap
One of the trickiest elements of exercise addiction for climbers is that, in the early days of that addiction, your climbing may actually improve. This may be due to increased endurance, strength, flexibility, or skills due to increased training. People experiencing exercise addiction often feel a sense of sharpness, euphoria, flow, and strength. This comes from heightened hormones like adrenaline that keep your body functioning in fight or flight mode, even in the face of dysfunctional exercise. Eventually, however, the compulsive movement catches up, and your body begins rebelling against all the excessive stress.
In the short-term, this may make you feel like you’ve hit a plateau or are even losing fitness; you may also feel “flat” or unmotivated, or feel increasingly prone to injury. But in the long-term, exercise addiction can lead to serious health consequences such as poorly-healing injuries, stress fractures, profound fatigue, depression, cardiac irregularities, and even death.
Signs and symptoms of exercise addiction:
- Exercising beyond what you’re told by a coach or trainer (“to get ahead”).
- Exercise takes up a large portion of your life.
- The time you spend thinking about exercise, working out, and recovering from exercise crowds out other aspects of your life (social, family, work, or school).
- Exercise needs to be increasingly longer and/or more intense to feel like you did enough; you often do more than intended.
- Anxiety, guilt, irritability, or shame if you cannot exercise as planned.
- Exercising in abnormal ways (wall sits and planks in your room at night, even though you already worked out, fidgeting to burn more calories, bounding upstairs instead of walking).
- Arbitrary goals drive the exercise (needing to get 20,000 steps, 100 pushups, etc. that are not based on science-driven exercise protocol).
- Exercise is used to avoid life or emotions.
- Exercise is accompanied by irritability, stress, anxiety, fatigue, body aches, poor concentration, sleep disturbances.
- Exercise becomes your identity.
- Exercising despite being injured, sick, tired, burnt out, or impractical for your day’s schedule.
Dr. Kate Bennet, sports psychologist and author of Treating Athletes with Eating Disorders, describes in this graphic how to distinguish between normal exercise and exercise dependency.
How can exercise addiction be harmful?
Exercise addiction can thwart your health by:
- Decreasing bone density
- Impairing heart function
- Compromising connective tissue
- Elevating stress hormones and “fight or flight” mode in your nervous system
- Impairing spatial functioning (coordination, balance)
- Increasing injury risk
- Increasing risk for sleep disturbances
How can we prevent it?
- Do not praise people for doing extra exercise. Especially if you are a coach or parent of a youth climber—if you see them going beyond the prescribed practice regimen, say something.
- Notice if you start to feel anxious around exercise. Is it taking over your life? Does it feel compulsive? Get curious and seek professional help.
- Normalize being human. We all need rest days, even unplanned ones. You are not an exercise robot.
- Honor your body with compassion. If you notice you are feeling run down, sick, or fatigued: rest.
- Do not push yourself through a planned workout if you feel injury tweaks or fatigue. There is a line between being uncomfortable to stimulate fitness gains vs. pushing through and creating injuries and an overtrained body. Be mindful and learn the difference.
What should you do if you suspect exercise addiction?
Exercise addiction is a complex behavior, often intertwined with food relationship, body image, or trauma. The best way to treat these sorts of maladaptive coping mechanisms is to seek professional help. Understanding what is driving the behavior is the first step to overcoming exercise addiction. With a flexible mindset and awareness, you can have a healthy relationship with exercise.
Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutrition coaching, workshops, and writing services.