Are Washingtonians Addicted to Exercise?

Athletes and psychology experts weigh in on why DC is so fitness-obsessed.

Sports psychology expert Dr. Keith Kaufman says exercise addiction or athlete's guilt is often found among Washington's type-A personalities. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Like many Washingtonians, blogger Meaghan Stakelin loves to exercise, so much that last October she began her mission to try out virtually every fitness class available in the area for fun. But it took years—and a crippling knee injury—for Stakelin to learn the difference between fitness as an enjoyment versus an obligation.

It’s a problem plenty of avid exercisers (often former collegiate athletes) grapple with once the two-a-days end and they enter the real world. “I spent many years post-college struggling with feeling like I needed to be working out at a high level of intensity every single day,” says Stakelin, a former collegiate swimmer. It got to the point that the 26-year-old felt compelled to run to and from classes even after a relaxing yoga session. Yoga classes weren’t “real workouts,” she’d tell herself.

“All I knew is that if I wasn’t sore after a workout [. . .] it wasn’t worth it,” she says. “My perception of normalcy was completely ludicrous.”

This sort of mentality is typical of this city, says local sports psychologist Dr. Keith Kaufman. “What athletes are doing to themselves is just a reflection of the larger subculture” of Washington’s type-A personalities who are driven by success, he says. “There’s this athlete mentality around that you’re supposed to feel pain—a no pain, no gain kind of approach.” 

It’s a problem that was painfully exemplified during a Redskins game in January, when the nation watched Robert Griffin III force himself through play after play on an injured knee. Kaufman says athletes often can’t differentiate between “hurt and injured. They think if you’re hurt, you can still play,” he says. “Athletes can be poor judges of when it’s time to back off and when it’s time to push through.”

While being driven is necessary to succeed in the athletic world, the constant pressure often leads to what’s called athlete’s guilt, a common symptom of exercise addiction. While it’s not listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V), exercise addiction was first noted in 1970s in a number of studies that found that when certain people were kept from working out, they experienced withdrawal-like symptoms such as guilt, anxiety, restlessness, and irritability. Typically, those who are addicted depend on exercising alone to give them a sense of happiness or euphoria.

They’re symptoms local runner Ericka Anderson remembers experiencing during a period in her life when she had an “unhealthy” relationship with exercise. 

“Back then, it was all about burning calories and losing weight,” she says. “I was addicted to keeping control over the food in my body.” She adds, “Exercise is hell when you are doing it for that reason alone.”

Anderson says she eventually learned to enjoy exercise when she found activities she truly loved: running and CrossFit. “Once I began enjoying exercise, I began to do it more for enjoyment and happiness than for punishment or control,” she says.

Kaufman says the key to preventing exercise addiction and athlete’s guilt is to listen to what your body is telling you physically. “The worst thing you can do is listen other people. The best thing you can do is know yourself. Ask yourself if that one extra mile is going to get you hurt.”

He adds that you should avoid being a “hindsight athlete” who is very self-critical. “Athletes tend to be very critical of themselves,” he says. “This can make it difficult to know when it’s time to back off.”

Easier said then done, says Stakelin, who says it took her months of feeling “inadequate—almost a level of self-loathing” until she conquered her form of exercise addiction. “While that period in my life was painful—literally—and extremely difficult, I came out of it with a keen appreciation for fitness as a gift, not a burden,” she says. “I have learned to listen to my body and treat it with respect.”