Self-Medicating with Athletic Activity: No Prescription Necessary to Take Things Too Far

When does athletic activity cross the boundary from life enhancing to unhealthy preoccupation? What can we do about it?

They say it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Anyone who has nursed a hangover, rued that third slice of cake, or had to massage the cramps out of their hands after having had them clamped around a video game controller for hours and hours can probably attest to this. I’m not intimately familiar with the science related to why we overindulge, but I know it exists, and I know it can cause us to pursue otherwise pleasant diversions to a negative extent.

I know how this has played itself out in my own world. For me, a healthy, happy life is about balance, but when we are preoccupied with something, even something that is ostensibly healthy, like an exercise regimen or a martial art, sometimes we can take it to an unhealthy extreme. I’d say I’m only speaking for myself, but I’ve seen the effects of good fitness habits gone bad in others as well, and have even dispensed advice about it – when asked, of course. It can manifest itself as burnout, repetitive stress injuries, illness, and even conditions with very serious-sounding names like rhabdomyolysis and orthorexia.

In an earlier article, I discussed HOW this happened to me. And that got me thinking about WHY it can happen. It started to dawn on me that I can use my athletic pursuits to self medicate the way some people use drugs or shopping or food: to take my mind off the stuff in my life that isn’t going the way I want it to. I don’t plan to transform these healthy habits into unhealthy diversions, but sometimes I do, frequently when I’m looking for escapism, frequently subconsciously.

Those are the times when I hang out longer before and after class, when I get antsy if I have to miss training, and when even the post-training exhaustion enables me to detach from whatever’s going on in my work or personal life that I’d rather not deal with. Some of this is probably normal and is one of the many reasons people pursue a fitness path in the first place.

But you can tell when it has become a bit, overzealous, shall we say. I’m not saying we need to curtail our athletic endeavors. Just, every now and then, it’s important to do a gut check and make sure that when you are rushing to your workout, you are actively rushing to something rather than actively running away from something. And if it’s the latter, see if you can figure out what it is and address it head on before your workout becomes your drug of choice.

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