Health Freak: Addicted to Healthy Living

You can hardly open a magazine or reach the end of a chat show without someone urging you to get fit, lose weight, or try the latest superfood. Some ignore the advice, of course, others follow it. Some, however, need no such urging. For them, health and fitness are an all-consuming passion, taking all their time and energy and, in many cases, harming rather than improving their lives.

The Problem

Of course, it isn’t always easy to recognize your problem. Consider the remarks made by friends and loved ones. Have they ever, jokingly, described you as a “health freak”, or a “health nut”? They probably make disparaging remarks like “no, let’s not go for a hot chocolate – you will only spend the afternoon burning it off in the gym” etc. People often reveal what they really think in jokes and sarcastic remarks.

Perhaps the most obvious sign is the obsessive nature of your exercising. The health and fitness addict never relaxes. His new lifestyle is all-consuming. Whereas the averagely healthy individual is perfectly at ease stretched on the sofa, chocolates on their lap, and a good film playing, the health addict is not. In other words, they can never switch off. If they were sitting there instead, they would be longing to go for a jog, and conscious all the time that their metabolism was slowing down, that the chocolate and wine were full of calories, and so on.

They are also compulsive. Like any addict, they struggle to control themselves. For most people, exercise is a bore; they must force themselves to put on their sweatpants and go for a run. Not the health addict. He has the opposite problem: even on Christmas Day, or his son’s first birthday, he just wishes everyone would hurry through the meal so he can hit the gym. Again, this may be revealed in small ways. So, for example, if you go out for the day with your wife and children, you may ask her to stop the car a few miles from home so you can get out and jog, or walk, the rest of the way.

If you suspect you have a problem, consider the following. Do you feel healthy and happy? You may have done when you first started getting into shape, but maybe now you just feel exhausted and burnt out all the time. You also know you have a problem when your health and fitness regimen interferes with your day to day life: when you miss your daughter’s school play because you haven’t done your full number of sit-ups, or when your partner is upset because she needed to talk about her day at work but you’d gone for a swim.

Never feeling satisfied is another classic sign – you should have lifted that extra weight, run that extra mile, beaten your personal best, etc. Health obsessives also find themselves isolated. This is a common experience among addicts. Just as the alcoholic begins as a social drinker and ends up alone in his apartment with a bottle of Vodka, so the health addict begins by jogging with friends on a summer’s evening and finishes pounding along the road on his own in the depths of winter.


If you recognise that you’ve developed a problem, try to understand why. Addiction often fills some inner need or void. In the case of health obsession, people often seek control. Life is painful and short, and the human body, though a marvel of evolution, is also complex and prone to frequent breakdown. By middle-age, most people have lost a loved one to cancer, stroke or heart disease. And most know of someone young and full of life who was struck down by some nasty, chronic disease.

In spite of all our computers and space probes, when it comes to the human body we are pretty hopeless. We cannot cure diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and numerous other problems. Through healthy living, people comfort themselves. They feel they are taking control rather than placing their life in the hands of those who failed to save their friend from breast cancer.

Healthy living gives a sense of control in other ways. People prone to mental illness, like anxiety, depression, and insomnia, may be urged to take more exercise. They do so, and find that it works. For the first time they feel in charge of their illness rather than its helpless victim. But the exercise then becomes like a ritual: something they must do if their demons are to be kept at bay.

Closely related to this need for control is the sense of fear. Many health addicts become addicted either when their children are born, or when they fail to have any. In the first case, they obviously dread the thought of no longer being there to support and protect them. Or perhaps they simply wish to have the energy to keep up (especially if they have them later in life).

Those who cannot, or choose not, to have children may experience a different sort of fear – of having no one to care for them should they become sick or dependent. By taking obsessive care of their health, they hope to delay that moment. Maybe, they reason, they could delay it forever, and die suddenly in extreme old age, without becoming frail and helpless in the run up.

For others, the addiction is rooted in low self-esteem or poor body image. Exercise and healthy eating is a way of fighting those feelings. A short, skinny man knows that he will never look like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, but addiction isn’t rational. Deep down, that may be his fantasy, as he sweats and strains through another gym session. An average woman knows she will never look like a movie star or a model but, once again, she isn’t being rational.

Overcoming Your Addiction

It must first be remembered that people exercise and eat healthily to improve their health and increase their energy levels. By overdoing these, you have the opposite effect. Take mental illness, for example. If you are prone to depression, sitting at home all day eating junk food and drinking alcohol will make things worse. On the other hand, eat plenty of fresh oily fish and salads and go for a brisk walk every day and your mood will rise. However, eat nothing but salads, and then push yourself to run five or six miles a day, and you will exhaust your body and aggravate your depression.

Too much exercise can actually cause physical harm as well. Experienced physicians, for example, will tell you that obsessive joggers wreck their knees and ankles, wearing away the joints and leaving them stiff and uncomfortable. A 70-year-old who went for a brisk three mile walk every day from the age of 20 would probably be in better shape than a twin brother who ran five miles every morning.

An important recent discovery is the role inflammation plays in the development of disease and disability. Alzheimer’s and cancer, for example, have both been linked to this. Unfortunately, excessive and brutal exercise causes such inflammation. Obviously, that does not mean that a punishing jog will give you cancer, but too much exercise, especially if it is of an extreme kind, may do you more harm than good. It may also explain something that had baffled observers for years – why retired sports stars seemed to live no longer than the average person. This was particularly true of boxers and American Football players, who had spent much of their career in superb physical shape.

Finally, consider why you developed this obsessive need. What hole are you trying to fill? What is it you hope to keep at bay? There are other ways of addressing such problems. If you loathe your body, it may be more helpful to see a therapist. If you dread a lonely old age, make more of an effort to socialize, or try a new relationship. Like anything in life, moderation is key.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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