Exercise Addiction – Good or Bad?

me&my health up podcast episode #24- Transcript

Anthony Hartcher 0:00
Welcome to another exciting episode of health up. I’m your host Anthony Hartcher. I’m a clinical nutritionist and lifestyle medicine specialist. Health up is all about enhancing and enlightening your well being.

And today, we are blessed to have with us Stephanie, who’s an elite gymnast or was an elite gymnast for good 15 years. And now she’s an exercise physiologist with Longevity Exercise Physiology. And we’re going to be discussing a topic of one of our listeners actually suggested that we talk about exercise addict, addiction, so I thought there’d be no better person then to discuss it with.

As you know, she’s been on that journey and walk the path. So welcome, Steph, how you doing?

Stephanie Keily 0:50
Good. Thank you. How are you?

Anthony Hartcher 0:53
I’m fantastic. You want to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you arrived or what you’re doing today a little bit about your story, your journey?

Stephanie Keily 1:02
Yeah, definitely. So um, I started my sporting journey as a gymnast. I started gymnastics when I was about four. I started initially with artistic gymnastics, which is your typical bars, beam, vault, floor. I competed in artistic gymnastics for a few years. And then when I was about seven, I transitioned into aerobics gymnastics, which is a slightly different type of gymnastics.

There’s four or five different gymnastic areas that you can compete in. And this is just another one of them. So I started competing in gymnastics. And as I got older, the training started to ramp up. I started kind of my, you know, 20 to 25 hour training weeks from probably when I was about nine or 10. And yeah, from there, you know, did the typical school girl thing where you try and sink your teeth into every sport you can at school.

So I did everything from athletics, to swimming to cross country to netball, anything that I could do. And as I started to get older, that started to obviously take a bit of a toll on my body. So when I was 15, I had both my ankles reconstructive. I had bilateral ankle reconstructions at once. So I was in a wheelchair for six to eight weeks. And then after that I was on crutches. And that was to continue my career in gymnastics. And throughout all of this, I was competing overseas and competing in Australia.

I’m on the state and national team. And as I continued to compete, I kind of started to experience you know, different stress related injuries, overuse injuries. And that kind of sparked my interest, I guess, in you know, how I can look after my body in what I could do to optimise my training and kind of better educate myself on how I could be becoming the best athlete I can be. And that’s kind of where my interest started to take for things like Sport and Exercise Science and Exercise Physiology.

So um, when I finished school, I decided that Sport and Exercise Science would be a really good pathway for me to kind of better educate myself. And from my sports science degree, I finished that and decided that I’m working face to face with people and trying to kind of improve their health and learn about different chronic disease and chronic injuries, chronic pain sort of pathologies. That’s how I ended up in exercise physiology.

Anthony Hartcher 3:50
And, by the sounds of it, you really enjoy what you’re doing, which is great. Are you still doing any sports at the moment, you still compete. Do you still train intensely? What are you up to these days?

Stephanie Keily 4:05
Yeah, so I retired in October last year, I had my my last World Championships in the Netherlands. I, I finished on a high, I came second and then I decided I’d throw the towel after that. Um, so now I still train most days, I have a little bit more of a structured training schedule now where I factor in my rest days and obviously, back then, training kind of ruled my life in my schedule, whereas now, I still train on a pretty strict schedule, but I definitely allow a lot more time and space for if the body’s feeling it, it’s feeling it if it’s not, it’s a rest day. So less intense, but I’m still training a fair bit.

Anthony Hartcher 4:53
And so now that you know you’re listening to your body as to your exercise intensity. Did you always have that inclination to listen to your body as to how you train or where you’re very much driven by what your coaches or the programme said, and just went out and did whatever it took to complete the programme.

Just really interested to see, if you’ve evolved into this, you know, I exercise according to how I’m feeling. Or you would just have a different mindset back when you’re competing as an elite gymnast.

Stephanie Keily 5:29
Yeah, I think that, um, when I was a bit younger, the implications of overtraining and going too hard, were severe. So, you know, if you over trained, you’d kind of pull up, I’d pull up fatigued at school, and I might, my mood might have dipped a fair bit, but I didn’t really have the associated injury tendency that I kind of ended up at as I got older.

It was kind of however hard my body would go, I would push it too. And I think that a lot of coaches, especially that I had, would kind of go off more what I would say, rather than how I would respond to the training. So if I went in and said, No, I’m good to go, which was my tendency to do so. That’s what they would go off rather than looking at me and kind of going, you know, she’s super fatigued, it’s not performing very well, she needs a bit of a rest.

I think as time went on, and my body started to kind of cave before my brain did, that’s when I started learning that taking rest was going to be more beneficial to the training outcome in the competition outcome, then pushing through the pain and ending up kind of performing at my 70 80% Rather than taking the time I needed to recover, and then performing at my 95 100%.

Anthony Hartcher 6:55
And did you do much with heart rate variability? I know that’s a big measure these days as to whether an athlete who’s, you know, ready for a guess a people a hard and, you know, intense session, or whether, you know, it’s going to be a more risk, let a lesser intense session. Did that come about in your latter years, as to whether the coaches were looking at heart rate variability? And do you believe in that science to begin with?

Stephanie Keily 7:28
Yeah, I definitely believe in the science of it. Um, as far as my training went, No, it wasn’t something that was ever factored in, it wasn’t actually something that my coaches weren’t even aware of. I think that it’s definitely in gymnastics, it’s not something that’s looked at too heavily, it’s more, because it’s a little bit less of an endurance, sport, and coaches would more go off mood and muscle fatigue, delayed onset muscle soreness prior to a session rather than things like heart rate variability. So it was something that would more interest me now, I’m not when I was competing. Okay.

Anthony Hartcher 8:12
And just on the topic of exercise addiction, we haven’t discussed the definition. But would you classify yourself as someone that was addicted from an early age to exercise? Or not?

Stephanie Keily 8:27
Yeah, I mean, look, if I were to look at the textbook definition of exercise addiction, it’s what you would consider an unhealthy obsession. So I think for different people exercise addiction presents in different amounts and different modes, I think, me, definitely, I think I was addicted to I mean, gymnastics is a very aesthetically based sport. So I was addicted to exercise from a perspective of okay, you know, I, there’s an expectation for me to look a certain way when I compete.

In order to get that I need to train more. So from that perspective, definitely, I think, then it also comes down to an addiction to success that, especially when you’re younger, is associated with go hard or go home. So the more you do, the better the outcome. And I think for a long time, I was addicted to that mentality of it.

If I train the hardest, my train the longest, I’ll be the best. And that’s a misconception that I think is really common, especially in younger athletes and athletes that are uneducated, about training principles like periodization and progressive overload. So I think in those two aspects, definitely I was addicted to exercise.

Anthony Hartcher 9:52
And reflecting back what would you tell your younger self today?

Stephanie Keily 9:57
or rest when you need it? When your body is telling you to rest, do it. Yeah, because I think I could have saved a lot of time off from overuse injuries, I could have better spent, you know, gaining strength or perfecting other elements of my routines that I wasted having to sit at home not doing anything, because I pushed myself too hard.

Anthony Hartcher 10:28
Yeah, so I think that’s a great tip for younger people is to really get in touch with how you’re feeling and less get carried away with the environment and what’s going around you and really look within and I think what you’ve gained over the years is that you’ll get better, you know, more optimal performance, the more intuitive you are with your body, the more connected you are.

And you know, that leads on to, you know, less chance or less risk of getting injuries, and which then puts you out that’s a real setback in the sport isn’t that when you get an injury, because you can’t train whatsoever, then you’ve got the recovery and getting back in getting back to the level that you’re at pre injury.

I think, you know, the tips you’ve shared have been very insightful. In in terms of exercises, diction.  You mentioned the different textbook definition is that unhealthy obsession with exercise? How would someone you know, because the other thing you also mentioned was when you’re in the moment, and you know, you lose all about being the best and pursuing the ultimate outcomes first places, representing New South Wales, Australia.

How does someone realise that? They’ve, you know, they’ve got this exercise addiction, without thinking, you know, it’s all too late. On now. I’m in this like, point of no return or a point of difficulty of getting out of like, how do you know that you’re actually going down that spiral of exercise addiction? Is there any indicators?

Stephanie Keily 12:14
Yeah, definitely. Um, there’s a few really big ones that I think if I’d have recognised back then I could have kind of kept that. But I think one of the biggest one is when you stop that amount of exercise, so when you pull back things like so pretty much withdrawal.

If you find that when you withdraw from that amount of exercise, and things like you’re anxious and irritable and not sleeping very well, I found that that’s when I knew I was quite addicted to exercise, because I ended up having, you know, almost physical withdrawals from not exercising when I was having time off. So that’s a really big one.

I think sacrificing important social aspects of your life for exercise, so not as much of a discipline, decision, but more of a, I can’t go to a social event, because I feel like I’m not leading down the path that’s gonna make me the best that I can. But doing that to an unhealthy point where, you know, you’re sacrificing all social events just to train. That’s, I think, a big indication.

Another massive one is continuing the amount of exercise that you know, is causing harm. So per Se, having an injury and you know that what you’re doing is worsening the injury and not having the self restraint to stop, and just going, I need to continue, I need to continue. I think that’s one of the biggest ones, because I think there’s a massive stigma behind athletes these days pushing through pain, and pushing past pain into further injury to be the best.

And that’s, I think, a massive indicator of overtraining, because it is it’s an obsession to push past a great deal of pain. Another Yeah, another, I think the lack of control is a really big one, feeling like you don’t have a choice in your brain that you have to do it and you won’t be able to relax until you’ve done that thing or done that training session or push to that goal. I think that’s because you’re not really making a conscious decision. Your body’s just accustomed to it and you feel like you have to continually increase your tolerance past its past at some, you know, conditioned point, and that’s a really big indication.

Anthony Hartcher 14:52
When you really just keep pushing yourself and pushing and not really taking any notice of that feeling. You know that what’s going on in your body. And it’s just this obsession to keep, as you said, to push through the pain to push through the barriers? You said that you retired October last year, had had, you know, a new talks about one of the key signs or symptoms of exercise addiction is that of, you know, withdrawal symptoms, and your, you know, at your peak doing 25, 30 hours a week of training intensity, how, how have you gone about that transition from, you know, elite athlete to, I guess, no longer elite, but, you know, still liking to enjoy moving the body and being healthy.

And, yeah, so I’m just interested in how you’ve managed that transition. And if you’ve got any tips for anyone that’s feeling that exercise or, you know, experiencing that exercise addiction, and want to know how they can transition away from it. Do you have any helpful tips to share?

Stephanie Keily 16:03
Yeah, definitely, um, that was something I’ve struggled quite a lot with actually, was knowing what to do next, and what was appropriate, and what I think that I still probably train a lot more than a normal person would. But for me, it feels like I’m only going you know, 50% I think that prioritising reprioritizing is a massive one. So allowing exercise to still be an integral part of your life.

Because when it has been for such a long time, it’s, I think, quite naïve to think you can just switch off that part of your brain that’s so accustomed to even being used to the dopamine and endorphin release that you get from exercise, which I guess your happy hormones that you get from exercising. It’s finding ways to, I think, other ways to even incorporate social aspects into exercise.

So changing from a environment where you’re exercising and the mood is there to be a bit the be the best. And there’s nothing else in my training session, finding ways to go, there are some sessions where I’m going to work really hard, but you know, other exercise days, or just going to be going for a brisk walk with my friends, and you’re still getting that rush you get from exercise, but it’s just at a different pace.

Or, you know, I’ve done lots of fun, high intensity activities in the last eight to 10 months, I’ve tried out things like boxing, and CrossFit and just things that I enjoy. And that is still giving me that rush. But it’s not with the same pressure and with the same obsessive mindset that I had prior. So I think finding creative ways to exercise without as much routine is a great way to try and break out of that cycle.

Anthony Hartcher 18:15
And I love the points that you brought up that you alluded to earlier, that was, you know, one of the areas of concern was, you know, when you’re withdrawing from social activities in your path to transition away from an elite athlete, you’ve incorporated the social aspect into what you’re doing.

So that’s really nice to see that you’ve taken something that was probably absent for a period of time, and you’ve made it a key part or an important part of you successfully transitioning, you know, away from being an elite athlete. Is there any other tips you’d like to share in terms of what’s helped you? I mean, you’ve mentioned that the way you think that paradigm shift of how you think about exercise. Is there anything else beyond that? That would be helpful? Reprioritization?

Stephanie Keily 19:12
Yeah, I think that a lot of athletes as well, or people with exercise addiction, also find it hard to withdraw from especially athletes, the sport itself, I think that, you know, you stop competing in the sport and you stop, you stop being a part of it.

And the withdrawal also, not as much comes from the exercise, but from the sport itself. And I definitely found that a great way for me to not feel like I had to go and train for gymnastics was by being a part of it in different ways. So things like helping with a bit of coaching or that sort of thing helped me to still feel like I was a part of the sport without actually pushing myself to go and train for the sport of that makes sense,

Anthony Hartcher 20:01
That does that makes real sense because in a sense that your identity for all those years, for a good party, your local for probably a majority of your life was identified in a your self identity is attached to gymnastics. And I’m thinking that you know, when people think of stiff Kelly that they thinking of, you know, gymnast and late gymnasts and, and you have that identity attachment and you no longer, you know, really immersed in the sport.

And so the one way you’re finding yourself to the guest transition out of it is still having ties and links to the sport and probably that aspect of giving back, isn’t it, it’s really contributing back to the sport. It’s given us so much, you know, growth and development as a person, and you’ve inspired younger athletes behind you, that now you’ve given me now you’re giving your expertise, and, you know, and sharing that with others, so that they can get better at the sport? Yeah, definitely. Did you? Have you had that no other life going and identity crisis? Did you feel that you had a bit of fat?

Stephanie Keily 21:16
Yeah, 100%. Um, I made my whole life, I think I’ve been the gymnast or the Arabic gymnast. So always, you know, at school, that was what I was, and that you need. That was what I was. And even in my new career, that’s a lot of the time when you’re trying to identify with people and identify with people about exercise. That’s my biggest exercise experience that I’ve had.

So yeah, definitely. And I think it’s still a massive part of who I am. And it has based, I mean, it’s formed, I guess, who I am as a person. But it’s now something that that I can look back on and use it as more of a learning and a teaching experience for me to give others as an kind of a, an upper hand, I guess from my exercise physiology prescription because it gives me the little bit of an edge that a lot of people don’t have, rather than it’s the only thing of who I am, it’s I’m an exercise physiologist who has an athletic background, rather than I’m a a gymnast who is just wanting to be an exercise physiologist.

Anthony Hartcher 22:25
And really good point. I like them very much. And, you know, the fact that you, you know, wanting to share with others, your learning experiences, so that they can excel through the sport in more fast tracked way, in a way, because you mentioned that you had your time back again, you would have listened more to your body and how it was feeling as opposed to really pushing through all barriers and pain barriers you mentioned.

Whereas you know, that the advice you can share with younger athletes that they can avoid the injuries, avoid into the ending up in a wheelchair and, and just excel and excel and, you know, have enjoy those rest days and, you know, probably have a more balanced approach to it all.

Stephanie Keily 23:12
Yeah, and also just knowing that or being educated enough to know that rest days are more important sometimes then that seventh day of training like that, I think if I’d have had that education surrounding that seventh day, or whatever day it needs to be is a rest day, surely because that’s more beneficial, beneficial than it being a training day. That would have made a world of difference even to your mental state not beating yourself up if you need a day off.

Anthony Hartcher 23:45
Yeah, good point. The other thing I was thinking of is that you know, you’re going from that 25 to 30 hours a week training and your your calorific demand from your body is of a certain level and then you’re transitioning away from that. So you know, the exercise intensity goes down, you’re doing less hours, however, the body’s still preparing itself.

Someday, you’re going to push me through or put me through this 30 hour week and I’ve got to be ready for it and so, the calorific demand is still there. How the hell have you managed that in terms of adjusting your calorific intake to your exercise? Load? Has that been difficult challenging because I certainly see it with other elite athletes.

That initial transition, whether it be six months after they retire or 12 months or even three years that still needing you know, their bodies still saying give me that, you know, like it’s like a setpoint they’ve established, the bodies established a setpoint around, I need this calorific intake because this is where the expenditure level these are the expenditure level drops off and the the intake still where it is. But things stuck if you got any tips around managing that transition, because I could see that being a challenge,

Stephanie Keily 25:08
Massively, um, and I think as well in not certain sports, this differs more than others, but in a sport that where you’re demanded per se to be so lean, I think I was down to I think my lowest body fat percentage. I did prior to my leanness competition was about 15%. And for me that’s really incredibly low, and adjusting to the knowledge that when you retire, it’s not sustainable.

And that was really, really difficult at first, because being a, you know, I guess in my mid 20s, it’s, no one wants to retire, and indefinitely know that you’re going to be gaining weight. I think that’s a really hard concept to be okay with. Um, but it was a massive transition that I had to make mentally to kind of look at my body and then go, okay, that’s not sustainable. What do I want to aim for. And for me, the way that I’ve handled that is by reprioritizing, what’s important in my training schedules, so I’ve kind of used, I’ve tried to gain a lot of muscle, since I’ve retired.

I’ve kind of used my reprioritization to get strong. And I think that that’s been a really helpful way for me to combat that. Um, at the end of the day, you’re never going to meet the calorie expectations that your bodies had, after a light training, I think that that was just something I had to really just accept and go, Okay, you know, I’m never going to be able to burn that much, my body’s not going to adjust to that straightaway. And in the transition period, all I’m going to do is use this kind of extra energy that I need is fuel for strength training, rather than just let it beat me up per set, which is what it did for a little bit of time.

Because, you know, you stopped doing that amount of training and your body still wants to eat that much. And it’s used to burning that many calories and it just can’t do it. I think yeah, prioritising different things and training with a different mindset. So exercising with the mindset of I’m here for different reasons, I’m here to build muscle, I’m here to, you know, sleep better, that sort of thing was a really good way that I did that. But I did also have to watch my diet.

It’s like a bodybuilder coming out of a bodybuilding competition. It’s kind of almost reverse dieting. It was something that I was careful about when I was finishing up because of my sports science background, I was aware that it was probably going to occur. So I did reverse diet slightly, but not to a massive extent.

Anthony Hartcher 28:10
I love those pointers, particularly around, you know, accepting the situation for what it is. And then refocusing reprioritizing, setting new goals, setting goals in other areas. And you’ve done it so well, it seems that, it wasn’t that long ago.

I mean, it’s less than a year ago, that you entered retirement. And it seems that you’ve entered it with such maturity and such a way like, did you actually get any transition training or any support in terms of people in your coaches, knowing that you’re going to retire was a little programme that you could attend that help set you up to the point where you are to that place, and that you’re coping really well with the transition?

Unknown Speaker 28:57
Yeah, I think that I knew that I was going to, I didn’t know that I was going to struggle, but I knew how passionate I was about what I did. So I think I was very aware that it might occur. So I did a lot of my own research prior to retiring on how I could best combat these sorts of things. I’d had a lot of conversations with other athletes that had previously retired as well.

I have a really good friend who’s a psychologist who was competing in the same school and she had had similar issues when she was retiring about you know, who was she in? How would she exercise still and what was important to her and she didn’t. A lot of athletes. I think a common trend is they’re not interested in exercising like the normal person is like most athletes have no interest in going to the gym and walking on the treadmill for half an hour to burn so many calories so that they can lose weight nine times out of 10, an athlete will never tell you that that’s enjoyable.

But someone in general population may love that, because that’s all they’ve known. So I think learning before I’d retired and I think I, I guess I set up a mental plan, I’d said, you know, I have this much time off. And then what I needed was a progressive return to some form of training programme that was sitting around 50% of what I was prior used to just so I knew that I was able to handle what was to come. That’s great. Yeah, sorry.

Anthony Hartcher 30:42
I was just going to say, I liked how you prepared yourself, in a sense, knowing that there was going to be a gap in your week, if this now you committed so much time and devotion towards your sport. And you’re planning that timeout, because I can imagine, if you didn’t plan that timeout, it could go to very unhealthy.

Other areas, you know, like you could end up spending all that time in the pub as an extreme. But yeah, so just thinking like you really thought it and plan that, as you said, you actually planned that out. And you spoke to people that were knowledgeable, I had experience and expertise in the area, which really helped you.

And, yeah, I think you’re a wealth of knowledge in terms of helping, you know, I guess the next generation of athletes transition from their elite sport to where they want to be post, in that having that self identity as that elite athlete. So it’s very much is there anything else you’d like to share on the topic that you know, we may have missed or that you think’s important.

Stephanie Keily 31:57
Um, I think something important to address is also just why athletes also get addicted. And more, this one probably more relates to general population who get addicted to exercise is recognising what the addictive factor is, and being able to find other ways to kind of fill that fill that gap without it being exercise.

I mean, people that are addicted to exercise have usually addicted to the dopamine or endorphin release that’s associated with that. Um, I think what’s important to recognise is that you can get that feeling without exercising, I mean, dopamine release and endorphin release can be from as something as simple as going for a walk with your friends at a brisk pace. And I think a lot of people think that they have to be like a lot of the fitness industry today tells you that you’ve got to be doing these hardcore exercise programmes five days a week to get that, that rush in that burn. And you don’t have to be doing that you can find so many other exercise modes.

For some people, it’s, you know, running with their dog for 20 minutes. And that’s what does it for them, and they’re able to kind of fill that void that way. So I think it’s just important to recognise that you can do it in different ways, rather than just pushing yourself to the limit and the industry telling you that that’s the only way that you can do it.

Anthony Hartcher 33:30
It’s a really, really helpful point. And just in terms of, you know, there would have been listeners that have connected with your message and in a similar situation, or feel that they could do do with your support or guidance or help. And, you know, it could be either in terms of that transition, or it could be in regards to you as an exercise physiologist, how can listeners best get in contact with you?

Stephanie Keily 34:00
Yeah, um, look, we have so I’m a part of a company called Longevity Exercise Physiology and Personal training. We’ve got a website where you can read up about all of our profiles as exercise physiologist, and what we specialise in. So we have staff members that have done elite running and powerlifting and dancing and everyone’s got their own journey and experience that they’ve embarked on.

We’ve got all our contact details on our website. So if you ever do want to get in contact with any of us or me personally, um, our email addresses on there as well. Please feel free to send me any emails or questions you have because I’d more than happily answer them.

Anthony Hartcher 34:44
Yeah, thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge and expertise. It’s been wonderful, very insightful to hear it from you. And congratulations on a fantastic career and congratulations on a successful transition.

Those are As far as I can see, and, you know, hear from, what you’re telling us is certainly you really manage that transition well, and I think you’re a shining light for the next generation of athletes to come through as to how to do it successfully.

And also you get, you know, shared with us that insight around how to navigate through exercise addiction. And first, it starts with recognising that your habits. And you know, then you helped us with some tips on how to work through that addiction. So really appreciate your time. Stephanie, thank you so much.

Stephanie Keily 35:38
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on. I really enjoyed it.

Anthony Hartcher 35:42
A pleasure. We’ll have to have you back, we’ll find another topic. And I’m sure the listeners will give some feedback because this episode came as a result of one the listeners, thinking this would be a great topic to discuss, and I’m so glad I came across you.

I think you’ve been the person that I would have been, I couldn’t have thought of anyone else better than someone with you that’s actually walked in the shoes of an elite or been an elite athlete. So it’s been so wonderful. So yeah, we look forward to having you back and listeners, certainly, leave comments.

Let us know what else you’d like to hear or what else you’d like to know, from Stephanie in terms of tips, whether, you know, be around exercise, exercise physiology.

So you’re more than happy to receive your feedback, and continue to follow and listen to the podcast. So thank you so much. Thank you, Stephanie. Really, it was a delight. Thank you.

Stephanie Keily 36:42
Thank you so much, Anthony.

Anthony Hartcher 36:44
You’re welcome.

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