Overexcising: Am I Exercise Obsessed? / by lee tilghman

It was a breezy, sunny autumn Saturday in New York City. Around 10:00 AM. I walked into a spin studio, and signed in. My friend was teaching the class, so I was on the guest list. I weaved through the crowded studio, sat down, strapped on my Shimano cycling shoes, tied up my hair, and made my way into the studio, heart pumping and adrenaline flowing through my veins as I geared up for yet another spin class. I couldn't wait to get my ya-ya's out on that bike.

I sat down on my assigned bike. The instructor (my friend) entered the room and greeted everyone. It was a packed class. The energy was unbelievable. Music came on, and class began. I closed my eyes and began moving my feet to the beat.

I jolted in surprise when I felt someone tap me on my shoulder. It was the studio manager. "Sorry, but because you are a guest of the instructor and there is waitlist, I'm going to have to remove you from the bike so that a paying member can take it. So sorry" she yelled into my ear over the music.

"What?! I'm already on the bike, class has already begun" I rebuttaled.

"I know, I'm so sorry" she said, unrelenting.

I could see in her eyes that there was no way of persuading her to let me stay on that bike. Not one to make a scene, I hopped off.

I was crushed. 

A rush of emotions came over me: anger, embarrassment, humiliation, "who-does-she-think-she-is righteousness. I walked out of the class, feeling like I had just been kicked out of my own birthday party.

As I walked into the sunlit, bright lobby and held open the door for the girl who was taking my bike, I felt a lump in my throat. Was I about to cry?

Oh my god, Lee. Keep it together.

But I was angry! That was supposed to be MY workout. I was supposed to ride that bike. I needed that exercise today. I had planned out my ENTIRE day around this workout. WHAT was I going to do now? Should I go for a 5 mile run to get the same heart rate and calorie burn? But it won't be the same. Okay, maybe I'll try another gym or workout class around here. I'm going to be sitting on airplane tonight for 6 hours. I need to burn these calories NOW.

And then I stopped.

I listened to the story I was telling myself, the panicked voice in my head. The voice of an impending anxiety attack. I stepped outside the studio and weighed my options.

Was I panicking because I had planned my day around this workout and now my plan was messed up? Or was I panicked because I wouldn't be exercising? Or both? What's REALLY going on here?

I checked my phone and saw a few messages from friends who wanted to hang out with me before I hopped on a flight back to LA. "Brunch?!?" the texts read.

Okay, maybe I'll go hang out with friends and get brunch.

No, you can't do that. You NEED to workout.

The inner dialogue argument continued.

But I'm only in NYC another few hours, and seeing my friends and people that love me will be a very rewarding and healthy thing to do.

But you were supposed to work out today, and if you don't workout your whole day will be ruined and you'll feel really crappy about yourself and you'll be swimming in a pool of anxiety later. Go work out. Now. Your friends can wait.

I stepped outside myself and walked myself through the dialogue. I've been through enough therapy and am self aware enough to know what was going on. My authentic self was arguing with my addictive, disordered behavior. It's the same thing as an eating disorder, or any disorder really, and it disguises itself as your voice. It wears thick glasses and a mustache and pretends to be your rational self. It thrives off secrecy, anxiety, and high emotion.

I knew I was on the edge of a panic attack, and made the final decision to workout rather than meet with friends. The way I saw it was, I was going to be anxious anyway, so I'd rather work out the anxiety away then be anxious without having worked out, as skipping a workout makes my anxiety works and is an anxiety provoker on its own. I figured the anxiety of sitting on a plane for 6 years later in the day without having worked out would be "too much to bear".

After I had made my decision, my thought process went a little like this:

Great job, Lee. You should be pleased with your decision. You are committed to your workout. You are healthy. You are putting your body first over your friends. This is good. Working out is good for you. You are so dedicated, look at you!

This is good, right? Working out to get your anxiety and yaya's out. Better than coping in other ways, by overeating, isolating, or numbing yourself some other way. 

But I couldn't help but think something was terribly wrong.

The anxiety attack that snuck up on me at that spin class is something I sat on for a few days afterwards. 

On the plane ride back to LA, I thought about the day I did my Q+A with The Cut a few months ago. Someone asked what my workout regime looked like. My response was: "it's pretty crazy. I do Soulcycle 3x a week, run 2x a week, yoga 1-2x a week, and TRX/hike 1x a week. I throw a day off in there, too, if I can"

After said Q+A, I got a private message from a longtime follower of mine.

"I read your response to the workout regime question. Have you thought that you might have an exercise addiction? Like does it give you anxiety to think of not getting in a real workout for a few days?"

My immediate gut reaction was: she's right. She had struck a chord. She was onto something. She could tell my exercise routine was intense, and she was right.

My followers are some of the most brilliant, kind hearted, and emotionally intelligent people out there. Her comment, although seemingly casual, made me think about the possibility that I was overexercising. Or, at least, exercising a bit too much. What does "I throw a day off in there IF I CAN" even MEAN? I re-read my language. It was clear that I did not value rest days.  

A week or so later, I had a checkup with my functional health doctor. He asked about my exercise routine and I mentioned my slight concern to him.

"I may or may not have a problem with overexercising. I'm not sure. How do you know?"

He agreed that is was better to be addicted to exercise and eating healthy than drugs and alcohol. OBVIOUSLY, when you put it like that, you can't really argue. So, I kind of forgot about it for a few weeks.

Running through valleys in Lake Tahoe this summer. 

Running through valleys in Lake Tahoe this summer. 

Here's the deal: I don't drink alcohol. I gave it up in December 2015 and have been sober for almost 1 full year. I don't go to AA meetings and don't call myself an alcoholic, but I just choose to steer away from any substance that might cause me to lose control. In college, I drank and partied like a normal student. But I consciously chose to give it up last year after a year of wrestling with giving it up. It was the best decision I made in a long, long, LONG time.

So, yes. I agreed with my doctor that health and exercise was a WAY better addiction than drugs, booze, even coffee. However, the idea of overexercise still tickled me deep down, because I think anything done obsessively and without moderation can get dangerous. When it starts to cause anxiety if you take it away, or if it gets in the way of your social life and relationships (as I caught it doing while I was in New York), then it's borderline obsessive and thus unhealthy for me.

After thinking about it for a few weeks,  I decided my follower was indeed right. I had been doing really intense workouts every day for a few months straight. Rationally, my brain knew this. My body also knew this, and needed a break. My legs were feeling weaker and weaker in my workout classes, and I was getting fatigued. I couldn't even hold warrior positions in yoga without my quads burning out. My body was ready for a break. I cut down on my cardio. Instead of doing cardio 5 days a week, I cut it down to 3-4 days a week. My body feels better, I feel stronger. I give myself more rest days so I don't get burnt out.  

It's okay to step back. It's okay to scale back. It doesn't mean we are giving up, or moving backwards. I think for obsessive people like me, it can get hard to step back or slow down because then I am afraid I'll lose momentum. But life is not black or white. It's always going, we are always moving forward even when we take a step back. 

Lately, I have been incorporating different types of workouts into my routine, plus more strength and weights which is something I've always wanted to play around with but was worried it wasn't enough cardio (or something). Just some story I was telling myself.

Am I fit enough?

Regardless of what I rationally know, this is a question I ask myself all the time. Regardless of the realities of my very active lifestylr....

I just ran a 10k last week, really fast. I workout HARD multiple times a week. I am mentally strong, and physically much stronger than I was this time last year. I am in better cardiovascular shape than I have been in years. Yoga poses are much easier for me now. But that same question always lingers in my head..."am I fit enough?" Well, for what? We all know WHY you do something is just as important as WHAT you're doing. If I want to live wholeheartedly, that is. And, of course I do! I So, when I ask myself WHY I work out: here are my options, in order of importance. 

  1. Anxiety reducer
  2. Confidence booster
  3. Improve my mental stamina and focus
  4. Reach new fitness goals (get stronger, faster)
  5. Look better (let's face it)
  6. Feel better about myself

It is true that working out makes me overall less anxious, and feel more confident in my skin, am more social, and treat myself better when I am actively working out. I've had periods of not working out and being lazy and I never feel good about those days. 

However, I think with everything I have mentioned, it's important to stay mindful of keeping everything in moderation and not getting too strict and obsessive over things. Even things that are "good" for you, can cause us emotional harm. I also know that the media/social media can make us feel like we are never enough, so that is something to watch out for. 

But nevertheless, exercise is a coping mechanism for me. On some days when I am really stressed out, I'll try to take two workouts. 

After this run, I'll take pilates.

No, after this run, I'll go to spin.

Tomorrow, I'll take a vinyasa flow then spinning.

It can get really stressful and overwhelming, trying to fit all this stuff in. 

Normally, this sort of thought pattern signifies that I am trying to run from something else in my life. Get it? 

There IS something really nice about sitting down on Sunday evenings and planning out my workouts. I think this is a perfectly healthy thing to do. It gives me routine, keeps me accountable, and helps me see my goals and expectations of myself more clearly. However, the anxiety attack in New York made me question how I much this scheduling in my workouts is actually healthy for me. Maybe a bit of flexibility in my schedule is something I need to work on in 2017. I think a bit of self forgiveness is in need.

It's tough because working out is HEALTHY. It's good for us. But when it starts controlling our lives, that's when it's not so healthy for us anymore.

What are your thoughts on overexercise?