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The dark side of the gym

Myths: I must avoid carbs to lose weight. If I lift weights, I will look "bulky". I just want to tone up <this body part>.

I regularly exercise and find weight training in the gym extremely satisfying; I love to see how my body changes shape as different muscle groups respond to my workouts. However, in recent months, I've become aware of a creeping feeling at the back of my mind, which makes me more concerned about my mental state when I'm not exercising.

I know that rest is both necessary and beneficial, it's when muscles rebuild and grow, it helps prevent injuries and it supports consistency (since you don't feel as constrained by a neverending routine). But, regardless of this knowledge, I still find it hard to give myself "downtime" from exercise, even over festive periods or when I'm not feeling 100%. I'm lucky to be someone who doesn't get injured easily, however, I cannot stand the thought of not being able to train due to a sustained injury.

Am I the only one that feels this way? I doubt it. So, to regain a little more control over my mental state, I spent time researching what might be the cause of this creeping feeling.

Here's the bright side

You're likely aware of the benefits of exercise — controlling your weight, combatting health conditions and boosting energy levels — but the mental health benefits are often overlooked.

I most enjoy "that feeling" when I've finished a tough workout and feel exhausted and fantastic. But what's fueling that sensation? Well, I now know that it's not just a reaction to a "good pump", it's the release of a class of brain chemicals called endocannabinoids, which are also known as "don't worry, be happy" chemicals.

In our brains, some areas regulate our response to stress and anxiety, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are rich in endocannabinoid receptors. When these endocannabinoids reach these receptors, two things happen:

  1. We experience a blissful mood that makes us feel content and reduces anxiety.

  2. We experience an increase in dopamine, a neurotransmitter (our body’s chemical messengers) that plays a key role in the brain's "reward system".

In terms of mental health, these chemical reactions manifest in several ways, including higher self-confidence, more motivation, sociability, and increased sensitivity to joy.

And here's the dark side

Dopamine is addictive. More specifically, the feeling of reward and joy we experience when we exercise is addictive. The real concern is that it's a snowball effect that can lead to more severe conditions, such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't exercise, if you're going to be addicted to anything then there are far worse things you could be addicted to. But I think it's important to be aware that exercise addiction can start subtly with a simple desire for physical fitness. For example:

You work out a few times, you feel great, you start to eat healthier, and you feel better. You work out a few more times and you feel fatigued, so you take a rest day. On your rest day, you feel like you're being lazy, so you go for a light workout. And so on.

This is how it starts; I know from personal experience where it ends. At best, you don't rest enough and deprioritise wellness in your routine and at worst you feel a deep sensation of guilt when you don't work out and over-scrutinise too many aspects of your life, such as the way you look in the mirror, how others perceive you and everything you eat.

How do I know that? It's because that's how I feel; I know that I'm an exercise addict.

It was worst when I couldn't workout

I've been in situations in the past when I've been unable to work out. The most extended period for me was when I had to undergo two hip arthroscopy operations to fix a congenital (from birth) issue. I was on crutches or rehabilitating on and off for the best part of two years — it was tough.

During that time, I experienced what I can only describe as depression, which was all the more noticeable since I'm generally an optimistic person. I experienced many of the signs that someone going through depression would present, which include:

  • Psychological symptoms: A continuous low mood or sadness, feeling hopeless and helpless, low self-esteem, anxiety, indecision and apathy, and being irritable or intolerant of others.

  • Physical symptoms: Changes in appetite or weight, muscle fatigue and soreness, low energy, low libido and disturbed sleep.

  • Social symptoms: Low productivity, taking part in fewer social activities, neglecting hobbies and interests and being reclusive.

While it's empowering to understand this in hindsight, my concern is that I would feel much the same way if I found myself in a similar situation now. Of even more concern is that I experience some of these feelings (albeit mildly) now, even when I take a single rest day — and I know I'm not alone.

Having spoken to people that are equally as enthusiastic about fitness, I know that many worry about not being able to exercise for whatever reason and feel like a rest day equals a bad day (rather than one that's objectively good for your mind and body).

What you can do about it

If you're reading this and (like me) much of it resonates with how you feel, then I think the main thing we can equip ourselves with is awareness. Awareness of ourselves, awareness of our needs and awareness of what others observe and tell us. I suppose that's the whole point of this post, it's to make you and myself more aware of what we're putting ourselves through and then hopefully catch it early enough to do something about it.

In the spirit of awareness, I want to draw your attention to a great article I found on Healthline that will help you identify whether your exercise habits are coming from an unhealthy place. How many of these signs do you identify with? (I'll put a ✔️ beside the ones I relate to).

  1. You work out to make up for meals or body parts you don't like ✔️

  2. You're always at the gym ✔️

  3. You feel tired most of the time

  4. You change plans to accommodate your workout schedule ✔️

  5. Your feelings about exercise include words like mandatory, guilt, anxiety, and rigid ✔️

  6. Your results are diminishing ✔️

  7. You have a negative body image

Helpfully, the article also recommends some actions to tackle exercise addiction:

  • Keep a work journal to help you identify feelings and patterns connected to exercise.

  • Seek professional help. Yes, this can be therapy (which I'm a huge advocate of), but it could also be a fitness professional or personal trainer, who could help you breed healthier workout habits.

I'm going to give the work journal a try, especially on days I force myself to take a well-earned rest — wish me luck!

If you'd like to keep up to date on my workouts and the meals I receive, you can follow me on Instagram.


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