Addiction to perfection: What the fitness industry is doing to females

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

A few days ago, I posted about how too much fixation on physical fitness can be detrimental to mental health. It was a friendly reminder, one I also needed, so that women like me don't fall into the trap of sacrificing mental health just to achieve physical health.

Imagine my surprise when someone aired their dissent, saying it was not applicable to athletes.

Something I learned in med school immediately came to mind: One of the common defense mechanisms employed by someone with an addiction problem is denial.

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We have to accept the possibility that our quest for health is, ironically, harming our health.

Enabled compulsion

Hope Virgo, a long distance runner, broke her foot because of an eating disorder coupled with an exercise addiction. Sadly, she's not the only athlete who has had to battle with a fixation on physical fitness to the detriment of her health.

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences involving more than 200 elite endurance athletes, 34 percent suffered from exercise dependence. That's one out of every three elite marathoners!

A 2018 review of medical literature has shown that athletes are not being given the mental health treatment they need because exercise dependence has yet to be addressed properly as a behavioral disorder. This delay has been caused by "problems in delimiting, defining, and diagnosing this sort of behavior" -- and this is probably fueled by society enabling this addiction, in part because it helps people achieve their fitness goals.

female flexing biceps

Compulsive and addictive behavior in exercising aren't the only issues female athletes have to contend with. They are also particularly prone to eating disorders, self-harm, drug use, and other mental health disorders, as mentioned in this 2014 medical review.

Healthy determination morphing into unhealthy obsession is something that can happen to anyone, athlete or otherwise. Overtraining, binge-purge syndromes, compulsive exercising -- these are just a few instances where athletes start struggling with balancing their mental and physical health. 

Recognizing the danger signs

It happens so often, and usually under the radar, to the point that compulsive exercising is becoming normalized, even among our loved ones. And in case you feel that this article seems to be targeting you, just think of it this way: It's better to find out now than suffer the consequences later!

Here are a few signs and symptoms that you may be addicted to working out. 

1. A missed workout leads to guilt or anxiety

2. You continue to exercise despite being ill or tired

3. Working out starts to interfere with other responsibilities

4. Happiness starts getting linked to exercise outcomes

Note: While these may point to a process addiction problem, that isn't necessarily the case. Please consult a mental health professional for proper diagnosis and management.

Excellence versus dependence

Pursuit of excellence can become exercise dependence, especially when one is unaware that this is a big possibility.

The female fitness culture comes with many pitfalls, all of which we need to talk about to protect women who are trying to look and feel good. Here are some of the common problems.

1) Too much focus on appearances

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look a certain way, unless it starts to affect mental health and lead to body dysmorphia, eating disorders, exercise addiction, and depression.

The irony lies in the fitness culture supposedly being a tool for better health, even while it leads women down a path of mental and physical health issues.

2) When staying fit turns into self-harm

Where do we draw the line? Striving for excellence isn't bad, until it leads to harming ourselves.

A capitalist mindset has led us to believe that we have to keep pushing ourselves to get results, and that the means we employ are justified by the outcome. Applied to fitness, this mentality leads to a "push, push, push" culture that does little to acknowledge limits, and instead encourages people to take their bodies close to breaking down just to get the desired results.

Staying healthy, strong, and in top shape has begun to decay into a self-harming beast-mode mindset, where one takes a break from working out "only because it's necessary for recovery", but not because one simply wants to. Each day one can slave at the gym but chooses not to becomes "an excuse not to get strong" instead of "an opportunity for some alone-time". Each cancelled workout session is seen as "slacking off" instead of "not allowing societal pressures to shape one's decisions".

Choosing not to work out, even just for a couple of days, is punished with disapproval.

3) Mental health issues being sublimated as "fitness"

When one has an addiction to drugs, everyone starts to recommend rehab and therapy. When one is addicted to Facebook, taking a break from the online platform is suggested.

But when one is addicted to working out, everyone says, "Fitspo!"

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It seems we have learned to maladapt to society's standards of body beauty by sublimating our obsession with fitness and repackaging it as a healthy determination to get fit. People -- especially females -- who feel compelled to look a certain way ignore the fact that they've had multiple workout injuries, or that their body fat percentage has already dipped dangerously below physiologic levels, or that they've started purging using excessive cardio, if only to show everyone else the strong, beautiful bodies they've finally achieved.

This new picture of a fitness inspiration is a revamp of yesterday's famous sexy celeb who was actually struggling with anorexia. Mental health issues, such as eating disorders, are being enabled instead of being properly addressed, because they're being marketed as a great way to become physically healthy. Mental health issues go undetected -- worse, inadvertently encouraged -- as women who suffer from them get the affirmation they need from fans, with nary a warning about the slippery slope they're on which is masquerading as the ultimate road to fitness.

Self-check: Self-love

Ladies, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, is our dedication to fitness starting to harm us? Taking good care of our bodies also means facing these issues. We have to acknowledge the reality that we might already be obsessing about fitness to an unhealthy degree.

If you think your fitness journey is giving you problems with how you eat, how you look at your body, and how you feel in general, don't hesitate to seek help. Consider it an act of self-love.

We're all in this together! Let's change the landscape of fitness and make it safer for all women.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!