Sunday, June 6, 2010

Exercise fanatics? They look like athletes to me.

I'm a bit disturbed by a trend I've been seeing on television "news documentaries" lately: the trend of examining people obsessed with exercise. Most recently was TLC's "Addicted" which featured an ultra-marathoner and now MSNBC's "Hooked" featuring female bodybuilders. While both shows bring up valid points, they are dramatizing these people as unhealthy and unhappy people using training to hide their pain. While that may be true, I think it's also an unfair assessment of extreme athletes who are training to be the best at their sport. There's no talk of "dedication" or "pride," but only obsession and addiction. And I don't think that's fair.

Having been a college athlete, I understand the problems with "exercise bulimia," or the tendency to exercise to the point where it becomes dangerously unhealthy. I had days where I'd spend five to six hours in the gym (2-3 hours in the a.m., then practice for up to 3 hours in the evening). I would sometimes run 4 or 5 miles after a meet in which I felt I didn't perform exceptionally well (I was a sprinter and jumper, so it was uncommon for us to run that far. Now that's normal for me.). My coach once had to find me at... crap, I think it was Rochester's campus, but I can't remember... because I was running laps around it (and crying), trying to shake off a bad performance in the triple jump. He caught me as I was finishing my sixth mile and physically grabbed me and made me stop. He brought me back to the track, see the trainer (I had performed poorly in part due to a back injury suffered three weeks prior) and make me eat something. Thankfully, I had coaches who recognized the signs of an overworked athlete, especially one whose mental state made their physical state unhealthy.



But the things I've been seeing on television make people who are dedicated to exercise seem wrong. There's one thing to work out because you have body dimorphism or a deep-seeded psychological issue that is manifesting itself through exercise anorexia. But working out in order to reach a GOAL isn't that. Just because distance runners or female bodybuilders work out three hours per day doesn't mean they are insane – they just work out more than you do. Instead of examining the real issue, it seems that these "news" documentaries are attempting to scare the American public into sitting on their asses. They talk about how these people are covering up an underlying depression with exercise. Hey - guess what - exercise makes you feel good. It does. Dedicated athletes are abusing exercise in order to feel better but it's totally okay that anti-depressants are the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. Hell, I take them and they work great, but I also definitely feel better after the gym. Am I covering up my issues or taking control of my life and acting in a healthy way?

We advertise Alli and Xenedrine and all of these bullshit supplements in order to lose weight rather than focusing on working out. The doctors on these shows talk about how athletes won't go out to dinner because they're "obsessed" with their diets. Well, that's also because most of the shit you put into your body at the local Applebee's is horrific for you and disgustingly high in calories. But, no, that's an "obsessive" behavior (as opposed to a healthy one). The nightly news bombards us with stories of "killer" foods or the newest thing that's causing cancer instead of promoting all of the foods that can sustain healthy bodies. We're a culture of fear and laziness and it drives me crazy. We need to stop vilifying extreme athletes as part of the problem and focus on the positive things that exercise (in manageable levels) can bring to a person's life.

Look, 30 minutes a day three times per week isn't enough gym time for a serious athlete. Training for major sport competitions takes time, dietary regulation and dedication. Even now as a "regular" person, I work out more often than that to maintain my cardio abilities and healthy weight. Following simple rules of logic prevent bad behaviors that exercise bulimics develop: Work out under the supervision of a trainer or dietician to make sure you're doing more good than harm. And listen to your body – too many of us don't, and that's how we end up injured. But let's stop calling these athletes on tv "addicted" and "fanatics" and pushing them to the fringe of society because we're intimidated by their work ethic. Hey, running an ultra-marathon may not be for you, but don't relegate the ultra-distance runner to a psych ward because you don't understand the mentality.

If I still had the time and drive to work out as often as I did in college to get my body back to competing form, I would. But it's more important to me to be healthy - mentally and physically - than to be cut up. But I have friends who work out like mad (and look *amazing*) to compete in races and get personal bests and whatnot. That's not me, but I admire their dedication.

I guess this is also part of my overall disgust for television "news" programs as of late. They're all about the fear factor and sensationalizing of regular people while ignoring the real-deal news going on in the world. Stop promoting fear and start living a healthy life, whatever that means to you. But please stop criticizing extreme athletes for their choices; it's their life, not yours.

If you know someone who might suffer from exercise bulimia or other compulsive behaviors, talk to them and see if you can help them take the steps toward recovery by finding a local mental health professional or support group. You can get more information about eating disorders at NEDA.org.

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