Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat less and exercise more? Are you sure it is the right decision for you? o Physiotherapist, nutritionist and clinical pilates instructor Vanessa Alford once found herself in the position of having to commit to eating more and exercising less in order to regain her health.
It’s the time of year. The time to make New Year’s resolutions. To make promises to ourselves. It’s often about becoming healthier. About increasing the amount we exercise, cutting out or reducing junk food, losing some unwanted kilos. Yet for a small percentage of the population who are continuously punishing their bodies with gruelling workouts, pushing them to the absolute limit and depriving their bodies of necessary calories and essential nutrients, their goals may be quite the opposite. Believe it or not, for some people, their New Year’s resolution may be to eat more and exercise less. I was once one of these people.
I have always been very active, having played a lot of tennis and netball in my adolescent years. After graduating from university and moving to North Queensland, where the days were warm, and I was living by the beach, I began to run more and more and by the end of the year had completed my first marathon. Running was effortless. The more I ran, the less I felt like eating junk food and unintentionally I dropped a few kilograms. People noticed, the compliments flowed and within a year I developed an identity as a marathon runner; one that I did not want to lose. An identity that would see my once healthy diet and exercise regime evolve into an addiction; a dangerous obsession that would control my life for years.
I became addicted to the adrenalin rush and the feeling of endorphins flooding my body, which is comparable to the effects of cannabis and alcohol. I craved it. I needed it. Something was missing from my day if I didn’t exercise. I felt compelled to torture my body with intense exercise, to push it to the limit during every single training session. And it got to the point where I no longer got that extreme high when exercising but rather felt an extreme emptiness when I didn’t exercise. Fearing losing my new identity, I became afraid of putting on weight and began counting every calorie that entered my mouth.
At the time I was aware that what I was doing was not healthy yet I was so caught up in it all that I failed to see exactly how detrimental my addiction was to my health and I certainly didn’t expect to suffer the consequences I did. I was so controlled by my addiction and this inner voice that dictated every part of my life – that told me I was lazy if I didn’t exercise for hours each day and that inflicted guilt onto me if I ate something not on my allowed list – that it was impossible to escape.
From the outside looking in, I was as fit and healthy as they come. I could run faster than most people and I had completed a sub-three-hour marathon, a time that most people can only dream about. Over the years I had sponsors in Australia and in Singapore, including the largest sports drink company in Asia, my face plastered on advertisements in train stations, running magazines and around university sports arenas. I have been a role model for many students; inspired by my discipline and dedication to health and fitness, many have vowed to follow in my footsteps. I have consulted to corporate companies and to university staff in Singapore on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. What most don’t know is that I took my fitness too far, to the point where I was fit, but I was NOT healthy. I thought I was invincible, but I was not.
Exercise addiction is not uncommon in our society. There are a lot of women and men in out there who are in a similar situation to what I was, torturing their body with intense exercise and depriving it of essential nutrients as they strive for the perfect physique and to be the best they can. I want to warn others of the potential consequences of over-training and calorie deprivation and to reiterate how important our health is; much more important than how you look or how fast you run.