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Is your spouse addicted to exercise?

DEAR JIM: Three years ago my husband, 76, decided to seek the Fountain of Youth and started an exercise program. He had gained considerable weight since his retirement and was beginning to experience some health issues, so was very supportive at first. But, now it seems to be out of control because all he thinks about is working out. He has lost more than 40 pounds and runs 10 miles a day – every day - rain or shine. When he isn’t running, he is lifting weights at the gym, playing tennis,o or competing in another weekend 5K or 10K. He even entered a race on my birthday last year and didn't get home until after 8 P.M! He brought me a nice gift, but that isn't the point. I don't want things - I want his company. I wouldn’t mind except that he is never around when our children or grandchildren come to visit, and there is never time to do anything together because he won’t miss a workout. This isn’t what I signed up for when we got married 50 years ago. I keep telling him that he will look great in his coffin someday, but he is missing out on life in the meantime. What can I do to get my husband back? FED UP IN FRESNO

Too much of a good thing?
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

DEAR FED UP: Your husband may be addicted to exercise which is not unlike other addictions. In fact, almost three per cent of our population is addicted to exercise, with marathon runners and sports science students among the most highly addicted. It also tends to be paired with addictions such as food disorders, caffeine use, shopping, or even work as co-occuring (COD) disorders.

“Exercise addiction is a process addiction in which a person engages in compulsive, mood-altering behaviors with the intention of avoiding painful feelings,” according to Kim Dennis, MD, CEO, and medical director of the Timberlake Knolls Residential Treatment Center. “Those addicted to exercise chase the ‘high,’ and this behavior ultimately becomes unmanageable and destructive.”

However, Dr. Dennis maintains that there are certain criteria that must be met in order for your husband’s behavior to be considered an addiction including:

· Tolerance: increasing the amount (of exercise) to feel the desired effect

· Withdrawal: negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problem, when exercise is stopped

· Lack of control: attempts to reduce exercise fail

· Intention: unable to adhere to intended routine

· Time: a great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in , and recovering from exercise

· Reduction in other activities: social, occupational, and/or recreational are reduced

· Continuance: continuing despite negative physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal consequences

“As with many addictions, dependence on exercise can start innocently,” adds Dr. Dennis. “The individual often receives validation or reinforcement for exercising. Once an individual is hooked, a need to achieve the euphoric state eclipses all else. Work, family, and social life frequently take a back seat to the necessity of exercising. If deprived, we see withdrawal symptoms just like you would with any other addiction.”

What to do with your husband?

If you believe, based on Dr. Dennis’s criteria, that your husband is addicted to exercise, you may want to first try a “backdoor” approach to get him back on track. It is not unusual for exercise addicts to “do their own thing” without any professional guidance, so perhaps you can appeal to his addiction by purchasing some training sessions from a certified personal trainer experienced in working with addictions. His birthday, your wedding anniversary, Fathers’ Day – it doesn’t matter the occasion. Meet with the trainer in advance to express your concerns and, perhaps, his/her professional advice can help to steer your husband into a healthier and more balanced workout regimen.

If you haven’t already, you might also join him in some of his exercise pursuits to encourage him to place more emphasis on doing something together as a couple for the benefit of your relationship rather than for the sake of competition. This kind of mutual activity might actually help to temper his obsessiveness and see things from a different, more balanced perspective. And, if you are not already physically active on your own, it will help you to better cope with the situation by personally experiencing the “high” that regular exercise provides for him while improving your own physical condition at the same time.

You might even take some classes together, or maybe the trainer can put together a routine that both of you can do together. If all else fails, seek professional counseling – for both of you – because addictions of any kind typically don’t just go away. Exercise has many benefits, but too much of a good thing is not healthy – not even exercise.