This post was originally published on June 29, 2015.
Lacing up my Asics this morning for a reluctant walk around the neighborhood, I jokingly wished I could just hurry up and get addicted to exercise already. I shouldn’t joke, though—for some people this is a real thing, although there seems to be a spectrum when it comes to how healthful or harmful it is.
On the sunny end of the spectrum are the fitness loving endorphins junkies. You may know them from the brightly colored snapshots of half-marathon race bibs on your Facebook feed. These people love working out and complain that they just don’t “feel right” when they don’t get to run (or bike, or do yoga, or whatever else they’re into). And it’s true: the more regularly one exercises, the more it starts to resemble fun instead of torture. Call it tolerance. Many of them also get hooked on the competition, either with other athletes in organized races, or with themselves, keeping detailed logs of their personal bests.
I myself was a card-carrying member of this group back in high school, as strange as it seems today. Honestly, I signed up for cross-country because it was the sport that required the least hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to do P.E. I never expected to be any good at it, so it was exhilarating to watch my three-mile race time improve three whole minutes at the start of my sophomore season. From then on, besting my “PR” became an obsession as consuming as beating a high score in Flappy Bird. And on top of the double high of endorphins and competition, there was the team itself. With our ubiquitous water bottles, strange inside jokes and fervent obsession with something that for most other athletes was a punishment, we were generally considered a cult. Similar bonds seem to exist in local triathlon or Crossfit communities, fellowships of like-minded weirdos who subject themselves to the same physical trials with equal gusto.
All this seems pretty wholesome, setting aside the potential injuries endurance athletes face. Shin splints and weak knees seem like small potatoes compared to, say, jail time or cirrhosis of the liver. In fact I give my cross-country obsession the lion’s share of the credit for keeping me on the straight and narrow the majority of high school. Once I realized I could be a contender, drugs and drinking were no longer an option. I didn’t even drink soda during the competitive season, not after our coach warned us about the bone-stripping effects of carbonation. I got eight hours of sleep every night. My goal time was scrawled across my sneakers. I kept a decorated binder of our coach’s race notes so I could preserve my progress up the varsity ladder for posterity. Anything that slowed me down was off limits.
Then—and this is where the line between healthy habits and addiction becomes blurry—I began counting calories. I didn’t think I was fat, but I did notice that only some of us had to use Vaseline to keep our thighs from chafing in practice. I did notice when one teacher, learning that I was our number two runner that year, archly commented that I “didn’t look like a runner.” I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but I sure freaked out when I gained it because I thought it would slow me down. The first time I tried to throw up on purpose was in the school bathroom after journalism class. It was the day before track League Finals, and I was convinced the little square of cake I had just eaten would kill my shot at breaking the school’s 800 meter record or qualifying for regionals. I stuck my finger down my throat, but I couldn’t do it. Nothing came up, and I began to feel sick in a different part of my stomach.
I didn’t know then that overexercising is actually one form of bulimia nervosa can take, but I did sense that I’d gone over to the dark side. Set foot in any gym and catch a whiff of compulsion: blank-eyed girls who hog the elliptical for two hours, musclebound dudebros flexing for the mirror. How many of those gym rats leave the locker room still fixated on their abs, with measuring tape waiting for them at home? It’s hard to tell on sight, but I sense it’s the ones that always hit the scale at the end of their workout. (Or before and after. Dead giveaway.) Not that weight consciousness is always bad—plenty of people could use more of it—but for a natural-born addict it’s easy for a fitness plan to slip into unhealthy obsession. It’s a fine line ripe for denial and justification. After all, the CDC doesn’t recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cocaine use per day. Exercise is essential. But body image issues can be as soul-destroying as any addiction.
Abandoning competitive running in college left a vacuum in my life just waiting to be filled with more dangerous fixations. The next decade witnessed a lot more vomiting, intentional and otherwise. But each time I swore to get myself healthy again, I always tried to get back into running. I’ve tried to recapture the magic I remember from high school, the sport’s miraculous ability to fill that void substances never really could. A week or so into an early attempt to get clean, an old teammate of mine came to visit and took me to her brother’s college cross-country meet. As I watched, I found myself fighting back tears. But on my own, I could never truly tap into it. I’ve had plenty of good workouts, but nothing stuck. My membership in the cult had been revoked.
These days I usually feel more like walking than running, and even that feels more like a duty half the time. It just doesn’t seem fair that my carb addiction has returned in sobriety while my running addiction has not, since a six-mile-daily habit would really help me cancel out all the fro-yo. But maybe it’s a blessing that getting up to work out more than twice a week is such a struggle. When I look back at cross-country I tend to do so through rosy lenses, remembering the rush of victory and the zany van trips up to state meets blasting Shakira. I conveniently forget the anguish it spawned towards the end. I’ve realized I don’t want exercise, or anything else in my life, to be an addiction. I want it to be a commitment. So what if I don’t feel an obsessive compulsion to train every day? In some ways, working out when I don’t want to says more about who I am and what I’m capable of. Maybe this is a victory—an addict’s first taste of moderation. When I do run now, it’s an unmeasured jaunt to nowhere. No timer, no destination, no control. I don’t care how far I’ve gone or whether I was slower than last week. I’m satisfied with my lack of obsession. I’m free.