Marathoners Anonymous?

James McWilliams, an avid long-distance runner, wonders whether he might be addicted to exercise:

Potentially addicted runners will cheat family time to run, sneak in runs without telling people, design vacations around exercise opportunities, will (if injured) count the days since their last run like an alcoholic counts the days since his last drink, and forgo sex to run (we often joke that nobody spends a Saturday morning running 20 miles because they have a great sex life). It seems certain that, if these symptoms are in any way common, running addiction will become an official disorder in due time.

The problem, from the perspective of these symptoms, seems quite real. But then what?

It’s hard to imagine how such “addicts” would be treated in a clinical setting. Would they be pushed to go cold turkey, as many drug and alcohol addicts are advised to do? That option would deny them the real benefits of a healthy activity they had merely taken too far. In the end, quitting could lead to a worse situation than the one the addict was already in. Scaling back, which is becoming an option for substance abusers, seems like it would be a more realistic option. But here, too, it’s hard to see how—given the tendency of the high to diminish for the exercise freak—the temptation to add one more mile could be resisted, especially when acute negative consequences do not result. It’s hard to imagine ever effectively treating this “disorder.”

Stanton Peele asserts that “people can become addicted to anything, whether drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, love, or sex, if it is the focus of an encapsulating experience that alleviates bad feelings and buttresses their self-esteem”:

Contrary to the common view of addiction as a choice-nullifying disease, this approach holds people accountable for their actions. Addicts are actively involved in building their attachments and can modify their behavior when they have an incentive to do so. Alcoholics drink moderately at home with their parents, for instance, and addicted smokers wait all morning during work until they can smoke outdoors. They might prefer to indulge their addictive impulses instantly, but those impulses can be resisted and ultimately eliminated.

Update from a reader, who happily calls herself an “enabler”:

My husband has to run/bike/swim/burn calories regularly, otherwise I don’t want to be around him. He gets grumpy and unpleasant. So is that the sign of an addiction? Possibly. Endorphins are powerful things. But so what? He’s healthier for it, and in a better mood. He doesn’t spend tons of money on equipment or a gym membership – or expensive cars, electronics, or pharmaceuticals (legal or not) to feel better. He, his sister, and father spend a lot of time bonding over triathlons, mountain bike wrecks, and equipment. He takes our kids out with him on their bicycles, and as soon as the baby is old enough, will take him in the jogging stroller, giving me time to sleep. I’ll happily enable this particular addiction! (And our sex life doesn’t suffer from his exercise. Quite the opposite, I’d argue.)