[04:06] About Vanessa Alford
[05:28] Vanessa's Marathon Obsession
[11:07] What Happened When Vanessa Collapsed
[14:37] Vanessa's Turning Point
[18:28] Runner's High vs. Exercise Addiction
[22:41] Why Do People Feel the Urge To Do Marathons?
[29:13] Vanessa's Testing
[33:56] Exercising & Food
[38:51] Advice for People Who Want To Exercise
[44:38] End of the Podcast
Ben: Hey, it's Ben Greenfield, and I'm still in airplane mode speaking at different conferences around the US, so in lieu of our normal Q&A episode, I have yet another special interview with you. A really shocking one about what happens when you over train and exercise too much and a story I think anyone who's keen on working out should listen to. But first, let's talk about bugs because this episode is brought to you by Exo Protein. That's EXO Protein, and when you go to exoprotein.com, you can use code “Ben” for a 10% discount.
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In this episode of The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast:
“This once healthy hobby did evolve into a more dangerous obsession, and I wanted to just run more and more. I wanted more of that runner's high. I wanted to keep my body weight low. I wanted to run faster.” “I had a lot of sensations down the back of my legs. Feeling like the skin was too tight, someone was stretching my skin. I felt drunk twenty-four hours a day.” “For some people, it might be that they're escaping problems in their lives, sort of a distraction.” “Because I never rested, I did intense sessions day after day after day, my cortisol levels were twenty times what they should have been.”
Ben: Hey folks, it's Ben Greenfield, and as you probably know, exercise is supposed to be good for you, but for some people, exercise can become a deadly obsession, and it can also turn into something that is unhealthy. And my guest in today's podcast episode is Vanessa Alford, and Vanessa has written a book called “Fit, Not Healthy”. I finished the book recently, and it's an excellent warning to any of us high achievers who are driven to extremes, to excel, and in the story, Vanessa talks about how she got to the point where right in the middle of a race, a marathon I believe, she simply collapsed after losing sensation in her legs and at that point had to nurse herself back to health from digging herself pretty deep into the hole from an exercise standpoint.
So in today's episode, Vanessa and I are going to talk about what it means to be fit, but not healthy, what happened to Vanessa and what you can do if you're finding yourself dug into an exercise hole or perhaps chasing an exercise addiction or an unhealthy version of the runner's high. So Vanessa, thanks for coming on the call.
Vanessa: Thank you for having me.
Ben: So I know it's kind of an involved question as you wrote an entire book about it, but how'd you get to the point where you collapsed in the middle of a race? Were you just a runner your whole life and you dug yourself into this hole over time? What exactly happened?
Vanessa: Yeah, so it was definitely a gradual process. I have always been fairly fit and fairly active. Growing up I've played a lot of tennis and netball, and I ran a little bit just to keep fit. I didn't really enjoy it, but I did it to keep fit. After graduating from university, I moved to the north of Australia where the weather was quite warm, I was living by the beach, and so I just started running more and more. My six kilometer runs became eight which became ten and so on. At the end of that year, I actually ran my first marathon. I did it just for fun. I really enjoyed it, I had a great experience.
Ben: So I'm just curious. When you’re short runs, your 5Ks and your 10Ks eventually became longer and longer runs that I think you describe in the book how it started with just a run down the beach that eventually got longer and longer. For you, was it getting longer and longer because you knew you were going to run a marathon, and you wanted to lay down that long fitness, or for you, was it because you were getting that runner's high and wanted to keep it going for longer periods of time or trying to burn more calories with each run or trying to somehow mark a new exercise period of time each day?
Vanessa: I think it was a bit of everything, all of the above. Initially, it was just trying to run my first marathon. I knew I needed to put in the miles as you do when you run a marathon, but over that years, I dropped a few kilos unintentionally. I was never overweight, but I did drop a few kilos. I was quite lean. The compliments flowed and I loved that, and within a couple of years, I developed this identity as a marathon runner. And I guess it was at that point where things became a little unhealthy, where this obsession developed. So this once healthy hobby did evolve into a more dangerous obsession, and I wanted to just run more and more. I wanted more of that runner's high. I wanted to keep my body weight low. I wanted to run faster, and like I said, that's where it became unhealthy and it started taking over my life.
Ben: Now where you doing other things at this point too in addition to running, or for you was it all running?
Vanessa: Yes, I was running everywhere, I never sort of drove. I was again, I loved it. I loved being in the outdoors, and I can't stand traffic. So I was running probably fifteen to twenty kilometers a day, so not a lot. I was never really resting, I was working as a physiotherapist, so I was on my feet all day, every day. So basically I didn't have any rest time, and as the miles increased as I started running more and more, like I said, that's when my body started craving rest, but I never gave it rest.
Ben: Gotcha. So as you were going and doing these things for longer and longer periods of time, what was going on as far as your body composition, your weight, your menstrual cycle, things along those lines? Was your body sending in warning signs?
Vanessa: Well initially, like I said, I became quit lean. Not too lean, like looking back I wasn't too lean in the beginning, but I loved it. I had a bit of a six-pack, and I carried very little fat, and I did love that, and I guess I wanted to maintain that. Over time however, it did become a bit of obsession. I started counting every calorie that went into my mouth. I started limiting the amount of calories that I told myself I was allowed, and over the next couple of years, my body weight did drop quite a lot. At the time, I didn't see it, but looking back at photos, I was way too lean. In terms of my menstrual cycle, I was on the pill. As regular as it could be, my menstrual cycle was as regular as could be, and it didn't really occur to me at the time that it was actually a tablet that was regulating it, not my own body. So looking back, I wasn't fertile. My menstrual cycle wasn't doing what it should have done for many, many years, so it definitely affected that.
Ben: And you had a boyfriend at the time too, right?
Vanessa: I did have a boyfriend, and he's now my husband, believe it or not.
Ben: So during the time that you were doing all this, what did he think? Was he out running with you or was he doing his own thing?
Vanessa: He was out running with me for some of it but definitely not all of it 'cause no one would have done the amount I did. I am very, very lucky that he hung around. Everyone who has read my book has referred to him as either a saint or the best guy that you could have in your life. I am lucky 'cause he wasn’t number one in my life at the time. Running was number one, it was my priority. I was very selfish, and when I think back to some of the things I did or didn't do, it's quite embarrassing that running was the most important thing, and it meant putting other things on hold which really should have been more important.
Ben: Now as far as your marathoning goes, you were getting leaner. Were you also getting faster and more successful? Was it paying off to a certain extent?
Vanessa: I was, and that's kind of the problem. I became a bit too good too quickly. Within two years of running my first marathon, I'd come third in at the Melbourne Marathon. I'd run under three hours, I had sponsors. People were talking Commonwealth Games. Yeah, I guess I improved too quickly, I think, and I got a little bit carried away with it. So it was that as well. It was just wanting to succeed, wanting to run faster, wanting to push harder. Every training session, I would set myself a time goal, and I do everything possible to achieve it. So it was like I was racing every single training session against myself.
Ben: So what happened when you got to the point where you actually collapsed during a race? Have you experienced other than being really lean and maybe some disruptions in fertility until that point? Did it just come out of the blue that you collapsed during the race, or were there concerns leading up to that point?
Vanessa: There were definitely concerns from people around me. I had doctors, I had my boyfriend, my parents telling me to slow down and put on weight and start looking after myself, but to me I was like what do they know? They're not marathon runners, I'm not going to listen to them. I had two stress fractures. They're probably the biggest warning signs that I had just chose to ignore. I just thought well, I'm a marathon runner, of course I get stress fractures. But looking back, they were the first warning signs that I was overdoing it, and I wasn't giving my body time to heal. So apart from those, it was pretty sudden. It was actually during a training run that I was going for a run one day, just a normal twelve kilometer run, and halfway through that run, I started feeling very light headed, quite dizzy. I felt like the ground was uneven. I felt like my legs were not connected to me, like I had no control of them all of a sudden, and it was frightening. The end of that run, I finished it. I was always going to finish my 12K 'cause that was my goal, but I collapsed to the ground and burst out into tears, and it all started from there, four years of horrible, distressing symptoms.
Ben: So you went through four years, after you collapsed in that marathon. Was that four years just basically sitting around, waiting to recover, or was it more, because I see this all the time with athletes, it's a yoyo cycle where they're like okay, I'm going to take five days off, and maybe I'll be good. When do I start training? They dig deeper into the hole. How did it work for you?
Vanessa: Exactly like that, it was a yoyo cycle. The first six months I could not run. I was too fatigued, I could barely get out of bed, so I had chronic fatigue. I was chronically fatigued for about six months up to the point where I had to stop working, and I had to move back in with my parents 'cause I couldn't even go shopping. Within six months, my fatigue lifted, and I say it's thanks to a kinesiologist that I saw. I think he really, really helped me, but once my fatigue lifted, I got back into running again. I had a lot of neurological symptoms, and they hung around. The thing was they were there regardless of whether I ran or not.
Ben: What do you mean neurological symptoms?
Vanessa: They sound weird explaining them. Even now I think really, did I feel all this? I had a lot of sensations down the back of my legs. Feeling like the skin was too tight, someone was stretching my skin. I felt drunk twenty-four hours a day. I felt dizzy, I felt very foggy in the head, so I couldn't really have a one-on-one conversation with anyone because that fog would just get worse and worse. I couldn't concentrate, but it was that unsteady feeling that was just horrible. It was like you're on a boat the whole time. I felt like someone was pushing me over when I walked. I looked normal. If you'd see me walk down the street, I looked normal, but that's what I was feeling, and it was just horrible and to have no control of your body after having such control for so many years was quite frightening. The worst was not knowing what was causing it. I knew deep down that it was a result of my training, but I was also partially convinced that I had some neurological condition, and that was the most frightening bit.
Ben: So how did the recovery cycle progress from there?
Vanessa: So for four years, I searched for answers. I spent thousands and thousands of dollars seeing doctors and other health care professionals, just begging people to find an answer. But now that I'm on the outside looking in, it was so obvious that it was just my body saying enough is enough.
Ben: The whole time that you were searching, were you still trying to exercise?
Vanessa: Yeah I was, because it made me feel good. For half an hour of that hour, I felt okay. I didn't feel good, but at least I had that adrenaline rush. So mentally I felt good, and it didn't make a difference if I exercised or not. I still had those symptoms, so that's why I kept exercising and I kept pushing my body, and part of me wanted to punish my body even more because of what it was inflicting on me. So it was a big vicious cycle, and if you ask me what the turning point was, it was when I wanted to get pregnant. My husband and I got married in 2010, and we've always wanted to have a family, and I knew deep down that I wasn't fertile and I would not get pregnant if I continued my current lifestyle. And so when I want something, I want it now, and so I did everything possible to try and get pregnant, and I went from exercising fourteen times a week to three. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do psychologically, but I'm very goal-orientated. Because I suddenly had this new goal in mind, that made the whole change a lot easier. Yeah, I was very lucky that I did. I put on seven kilos in three months, and I fell pregnant a couple of months after that.
Ben: Wow, congratulations. So you found something more meaningful to you than running. You found something else to almost replace that high that you were getting from exercise.
Vanessa: Exactly, well I wouldn't say it replaced it. Feeling pregnant, you definitely don't get that high, but definitely I had this new goal. Like I said, I'm very goal-orientated, and that was part of the problem with my running, but suddenly I had this new goal and I knew that I just had to change my ways if I was to accomplish that goal. Like I said, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do psychologically, but just keeping my focus on getting pregnant. I managed to do it, but I know I'm one of the lucky ones. I know that there are a lot of people out there who maybe were in a similar situation, over exercising and they're still struggling to get pregnant, and so it's not always that easy.
Ben: Yeah, I have a picture of you over in the show notes. And by the way for those of you listening to this, you can go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitnothealthy. That's bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitnothealthy, and the picture that I have of you Vanessa is you running, and you look miserable as you're running. You just look like you're struggling and you're hating every moment of it, and the reason I wanted to do this podcast with you is I run into so many people who get that same look on their face when they're exercising. You can tell they're trapped because they don't know what else to do to get that exercise high, and that's one of the first pieces of advice that I give to people a lot of times when they're stuck in this boat, and I explain to them that they need to go through a reboot cycle and avoid exercise. They're like what do I do for fun or to get that dopamine release, and I'm like sex, funny movies, a musical instrument, reading good books.. There are things that you can do that are also fun.
Vanessa: There are, but exercise addiction is very common in our society amongst both men and women. There are a lot of people out there who are pushing their bodies to extremes, striving for the perfect physique and to be the fastest they can, so that's why I wanted to get my story out there, to warn others of the potential consequences of not listening to your body and to reiterate how important our health is. It's much more important than how we look or how fast we run.
Ben: So how can you understand the difference, the crossing point between just a pure runner's high and exercise making you feel really good and an actual exercise addiction?
Vanessa: Most of us have felt a runner's high. You feel great after a good workout, after a good sweat. It makes you feel good, but it's an addiction when you actually miss that feeling. You feel like something's missing if you don't have it, and for me it got to the point where I actually no longer felt that extreme high after a run, but I just felt that extreme low if I didn't run. I felt this emptiness, like something was missing from my day. It's like an alcoholic who has these withdrawn symptoms if they don't drink or a drug addict who has withdrawn symptoms if they're coming of drugs. It is similar. I craved it, I needed it. So that's when it becomes unhealthy.
Ben: But what do you say to the people who say that's normal because exercise gives you the dopamine release and the release of happy neurotransmitters and makes you feel good and gives you the fresh air that if you don't do it that it's some kind of a good mechanism that you feel bad about yourself.
Vanessa: What's that, how do I tell people that it's okay?
Ben: Well, how do you explain to people that it's actually still an addiction? It's actually potentially something that is harming you even though you may feel good after doing it or you may be attracted to it for a high that you may get during it. You'll get that a lot. People say whatever, a marijuana high can be bad for your liver or an alcoholic high, same thing. It can be bad for your liver, bad for your hormones, but an exercise high is just you doing good things for your body, so it's okay.
Vanessa: Well you think it is, but my story shows that it's actually not the case. Too much of anything is not a good thing. To those people, I would ask them the question, do you really feel good every day? I know you feel good straight after a run. You got that high, but what about for the rest of the day? Are you feeling fatigued? Are you moody? Are you feeling sore when you wake up? Because that's what I was feeling, but I ignored all that because I knew that I'd get this adrenaline release if I did another session, but I remember walking upstairs at work, and my legs were burning. My quads were so tired and fatigued, and I was a bit moody. It was all to do with the overtraining, so I think anyone who is actually addicted to exercise isn't actually enjoying every second of their day. They're not feeling well all the time.
Ben: One of the things I like to think about when I ask myself whether or not I'm doing an exercise session because I'm addicted to exercise, and my day isn't going to feel complete to me unless I do it versus doing exercise for the performance enhancement benefits with the longevity benefits is if I can meet or exceed my previous day's performance. A few days ago, I was doing Murph with is this crossfit workout where you run a mile and you do a hundred pull-ups and 200 push-ups and 300 squats then you run a mile. It's a hard workout, but my first mile took me eight and a half minutes, and granted I'm leaving my house and running straight up a hill when I'm running that mile, but I knew as soon as I finished that first mile that I had no business doing the rest of the Murph because my body was beat up enough to the point where I wasn't even within a minute of my normal mile. So for me, that's a big question I ask myself is whether I'm actually improving performance and I'm able to go fast versus I'm just doing it to go through the motion.
Vanessa: Yeah, exactly, and that's what a lot of people are. They're doing it just to go through the motion. For me it was like I've done it the day before, might as well do it again today. I'm going to burn more calories, I'm going to feel good after. It's about a bit of self-worth as well and success in having completed a session, but you're right. If you're not performing well, and everything's more of an effort, then they're definitely sides that your body needs more rest.
Ben: I do want to talk about the physiology and the biology of this in terms of hormones and neurotransmitters, but as far as physiologically. When people are feeling like they need to maybe not just go out and do exercise, but when people feel that urge to go do a triathlon or a harder triathlon or a marathon or an adventure race or the next level up that might be the notch in the belt or their personal mountain or whatever, what's going on psychologically? What do you think?
Vanessa: I think if you look at a lot of people who do these type of things, there's a lot of tight paid personalities out there. They're goal driven, they're successful generally, they may be perfectionists, and I think it is all about feeling that success whether it is just accomplishing a certain time in your ten kilometer run or whether it is doing an adventure race that you haven't done before. It's all about trying to accomplish something that you haven't done before. For me like I said earlier, I used to set goals every training session, usually around a certain time that I had to complete it in, and I had to do everything possible to achieve that, and that's where I felt like I had succeeded if I ‘d done that. If I didn't achieve it, then I felt like I had failed. So I think a lot of it is that. For some people, it might be that they're escaping problems in their lives, sort of a distraction, and again achieving a certain goal via completing a race, it makes them feel good, make them feel in control.
Ben: So people who, for example, may have experienced a failure at some point in their life for not have success, whether athletically or from a career standpoint or a relationship standpoint, they're potentially using exercise, and specifically using these feats of physical performance to somehow compensate for that.
Vanessa: Yeah, to feel good about themselves, to feel like they have succeeded, to feel some self-worth, definitely. For me if you talk about the psychological aspect, this inner voice in my head started controlling me. It controlled me for four years, and it made sure that I wasn't lazy, that I didn't take a day off. It made me count every calorie that went into mouth, and it did make me feel guilty if I didn't do the right thing, so it was all about this guilt trip that it inflicted on me, and that was the hardest thing to overcome, to battle this inner voice in my head that really dictated every part of my life. It was really hard to escape.
Ben: Do you thing that's okay to use something like this as a compensating mechanism. I've certainly experienced failures in my life. For example, I used to want to be a professional tennis player. That was like for a good four years of my life, that's what I wanted to do, but I didn't make it. As a matter of fact when I got to college, I realized I sucked compared to a lot of the other folks who had been playing since they were six years old and had done international tour, and I was a small, hometown boy from Washington there in college. I started college early, I was sixteen years old and just got destroyed, and that's also the point at which I began a lot of, kind of like a hardcore drive for academic success. Eventually, I really got involved in triathlons and bodybuilding and all these other things. Do you think that it's okay to use something like that as a compensating mechanism?
Vanessa: I think it's okay if it doesn't go to extreme. Exercise is healthy, and any psychologist would probably tell you if someone's depressed, they'll recommend exercise. So definitely, exercise is a good thing for you psychologically, but if it's too extreme like it was with me, then no, it's not a good thing. Just like anything's not a good thing if it's to excess, everything in moderation.
Ben: Now speaking from ore of a neurological standpoint because you talked about how many of these sensations that you had like the tightness of the skin and the strange feeling in the legs, you found out later that was something going on neurologically. What's happening that when you need more and more exercise to achieve that same high, like you went from an 8K to a 10K to a 12K to marathoning, is there something going on from a neurological or physiological standpoint that requires you to need more and more to get the same effect, the same as you would experience with alcohol or drugs?
Vanessa: To be honest, I don't know, but I would say probably. But even now I find that the fitter I am, the more I have to push my body to feel that I've done anything. So when I'm super fit, I need to do a high-intensity interval session to feel like I've actually done anything that was worth getting out of bed for, but physiologically, I'm not actually sure what's actually happening. I just know that it's part of the addiction. Your body craves more and more of it, and I guess the more that it gets, the more it needs. Again like an alcoholic, the more they drink, the more they need to feel that effect, so it's the same thing with the release of neurotransmitters and adrenaline. You just need more of it, the more you have.
Ben: Yeah, and from me coming at this from an exercise physiology standpoint, I do think that you hit the nail on the head there when you're needing adrenaline and needing more of that because when you’re thrashing through a hard hour long run, and you're activating your sympathetic nervous system, you're getting a big dump of things like adrenaline and seratonin and your brain, your pituitary glands specifically releases a bunch of these endorphins and those blocked pain signals from reaching your brain until you get this euphoria.
You get that high, but in the way that endorphins work is they bind two receptors the same way as opioids do like heroin for example, and heroin addicts, they need more and more to get that same fix, and what happens is your tolerance to endorphins goes up and you need more and more to fill up those receptor sides, and so you need an increase in exercise volume or an increase in exercise intensity. I know that psychologically, there's probably a little bit going on there too, but from a biological standpoint. It's literally the same thing that's happening when you get addicted to everything from caffeine to marijuana to opioids. It's just your receptors eventually become insensitive, or you need more and more of the actual chemical to fill all those new receptor that you're building.
Vanessa: Yeah, that's spot on.
Ben: Yeah interesting. So when you feel down or you feel lazy or you feel depressed if you stop exercising at the same volume or the same frequency that you were at before, do you know if that's very similar in terms of that feeling? If that's similar to what's going on when depression sets in or something like that or if there's something different, did you find out anything about yourself in terms of testing your blood, your biomarkers, and things like that?
Vanessa: Yeah, not really. I think it all comes down to exactly what you talked about before that your body just gets so used to having all these release of chemicals, whatever it may be that you have withdrawal symptoms if you don't, and that does make you feel down. It does make you feel depressed, and it's a big vicious cycle 'cause you want more of it, but then it's not doing any good for your body, and for me, it was just a big vicious cycle. I felt terrible, but I kept exercising. That made me feel a bit worse, but I just knew that I would feel better psychologically if I did it, and I think that's why it was four years of torture, because I was caught in the spiral.
Ben: What kind of test did you run when you got to this point, and just because I'm curious? Folks can come away with some things that they could test and identify.
Vanessa: I tested everything that you could think of. So the first ones were, I guess, my vitamin levels. B-vitamins, 'cause if they're low, then you'll feel extreme fatigue. I got tested for every virus that you could think of. My adrenal function was tested which was pretty much, it had been affected, but that wasn't causing everything that I was feeling. I had a few MRIs on my brain and my spinal cord because like I said earlier, I was convinced that I had a neurological condition. Just some of the symptoms I was feeling were meditative of certain neurological conditions, so yeah. I had blood test after blood test, and then I saw different alternative therapists who looked at a deeper level. I had Chinese acupuncture, saw a couple of kinesiologists. So the list goes on and on and on.
Ben: So you pretty much did everything. I ran into a lot of people actually who come to me to help walk them through recovering from adrenal fatigue or recovering from over exercise, and that's what you find in many cases. People do every single test on the face of the planet when obviously the glaring issue is that they're running all these tests while also running on our day, or if they can't run 'cause they have a stress fracture, swimming, cycling, lifting, crossfit, whatever. But ultimately, did you find specific bowl markers that really leaped out.
Vanessa: Well there's two, so one was almost x hormones were zero which was no surprise. They had been for quite a couple of years. That wasn't causing my symptoms, but what I did find was from the kinesiologist got me to test my cortisol levels, and he actually did a saliva test. I'd had blood tests, and they showed that they were a little bit elevated, nothing too severe, but the saliva test really showed something quite significant. They were twenty times above what they should have been, so cortisol is a stress hormone that you release when you exercise, but when you stop exercising, they drop back to normal levels. Because I never rested, I did intense sessions day after day after day. My cortisol levels were twenty times what they should have been.
Ben: Twenty times?
Vanessa: Yeah, cortisol can have some pretty nasty effects on the nervous system, so that's really the only link that I can see with the symptoms that I was feeling 'cause still to this day, I am a little surprised or I still find a little hard to believe how all of my training manifested as these neurological symptoms. The fatigue, of course, I get that, but some of these weird symptoms I had down my legs, I still find it hard to see the link, but that's where when we found out that my cortisol was so high. Well like I said, it can have nasty effects on the brain and the nervous system, so there's a little bit of a link there.
Ben: Yeah, it's interesting too that you say cortisol as high, and then I don't know if you're familiar with this concept, but in many cases, you'll see people who reach such a state of adrenal fatigue that they're no longer producing adequate cortisol. So cortisol in many cases will test low all day long. Even in the morning when the body's supposed to be producing a healthy little dose of cortisol to wake you up, it's not producing anything, but you found that in your state that it was just high.
Vanessa: Yeah, it was twenty times higher than what it should've been, and I did do the tests throughout the day. I did four tests throughout the day, so I had to do it at specific times, but they just made to elevate it.
Ben: Yeah, it's called an adrenal stress index that test, so that's interesting. Now also you mentioned that you were really watching every morsel of food, every bite that went into your mouth. Do you find when you're talking with folks that anorexia is typically a part of this equation, and the reason I ask is it seems like I run into some people who train to eat and eat to train, and that's part of their training, is they have no problem with their anorexia. They're seeing too much damn food, the tons of chocolate bars and everything else and then jut crushing themselves with exercise to burn off those calories. But for you, that wasn't the case?
Vanessa: Well I'd say it was, I was definitely exercising to burn calories as well, but I wasn't overeating to put it that way. I was probably eating. I mean there was a short time where I was really restricting, but not for that long, but most of the time, I was eating what you would recommend someone to eat if they want to lose a little bit of weight, to eat really quite healthy. Not too much fat, obviously good fats, but for the amount of calories I was burning when I was running one or two or three hours a day, it was nowhere near enough. So look I'm not sure of the prevalence, but I think a lot of people who are addicted to exercise also become obsessed with their body weight.
So for me in the beginning, the more I ran, the less I wanted junk food. I just wanted to eat healthy, and my weight started falling a little bit. I dropped a few kilos, and that's where I felt great, and I developed this identity as a marathon runner, but within a year or so, it because a bit dangerous 'cause I did everything possible to maintain that identity and to stay lean, and that's when I did start counting every calorie that went into my mouth, and I made sue that I didn't eat too many carbohydrates. So I wasn't feeding my body enough for what I was burning.
Ben: Wow, so how long did it actually take? Was it a full four years before you really did actually get to the point where you were fertile enough to have a baby, and your cortisol wasn't so jacked up and a lot of these issues went away, or did it happen more quickly than four years?
Vanessa: Well it was four years of feeling unwell, four years of the horrible symptoms, and well six months of fatigue, but four years of all these neurological symptoms. But as soon as I had decided I wanted to have baby, that's when I just flicked the switch and my lifestyle changed quite dramatically. So I went exercising from fourteen times to three times. I ate a lot more, I put on seven kilos in a couple of months, and from the day I made that promise to myself, it was only about three months until I got pregnant, but I think I was one of the lucky ones where it happened so quickly.
Now in terms of all my symptoms, they just slowly went away while I was pregnant. So with over the next few months, I just started feeling better again. When I had the baby, I felt amazing, and I haven't looked back since. Looking back, it was definitely the overtraining that was causing those symptoms, but at the time I was so caught up in it all that I just didn't see that's exactly what was causing those symptoms, and I just kept pushing my body.
Ben: Have you heard the story about the rats who will run until they dropped dead on an exercise wheel?
Vanessa: Yeah, I have.
Ben: It's really interesting. They actually take away calories, and you would expect a rat perhaps if it had a ton of calories, it would just run and run and run on exercise wheel, and maybe dive to any stress fractures or inflammation or something like that, but in this case, they actually took away calories, and the rats ran and ran and ran until they died, and what the researchers, this was way back in the 60s that they did this test, and they figured that if there was some kind of a famine or there wasn't enough food around that you would have to have this built-in mechanism to move and move and move until you found food, and in this case, the rats were just running and running and running in hopes that somehow running would allow them to find food, and then they eventually died.
Vanessa: Well that's probably what would happen if we kept running, right? If we ignored all the warning signs, if you have enough mental strength to do that, I'm sure that's probably what would happen to us as well.
Ben: Yeah, but it's very interesting, and you see this among persistent hunting populations and folks like that too. Running is a means of survival. Chronic repetitive motion is a means of survival, and it's almost like those of us living in a modern world where typically you have enough calories. Somehow part of it is obviously the endorphin high and some of those opioid mechanisms I talked about earlier, but perhaps another part of it is that built in genetic mechanism that makes us want to move for long periods of time, especially if we're on a diet or something like that because our body is getting this message that it needs to move along in order to survive.
Vanessa: Yeah, it's interesting. It'll be interesting to do it with humans, but I think we can do that.
Ben: Yeah, just thinking out loud here. So as far as the advice that you'd give to people, what would be some of your biggest tips that you would dish out to folks who are listening in who may feel like they're dug into an exercise hole or they're addicted to exercise or perhaps had it done the same path that you were going down?
Vanessa: Well, the first thing I would say is to just take a step back and ask yourself the question are you really happy and why are you over exercising? Is it to stay lean? Is it to increase your fitness or your speed, or are you trying to escape other things in your life? So I guess they need to ask themselves that question before they can work out how to overcome it. Yeah, the other thing I would say is that I totally understand how difficult it is when you're so caught up in it, but you need to consider other things in your life that really are more important than exercise and should take greater priority, but I know it's easier said than done. It's very hard when you are caught up in it.
Ben: Yeah. So are you running now?
Vanessa: I am yes, I've just had my second baby.
Ben: I mean not right now while you're recording.
Vanessa: Not right now, you never know. I could be. No, I've just had another baby, so I am running. I'm running to keep fit. I'm satisfied these days with just thirty or forty minutes. I don’t have to push my body to extreme or get my heart rate up to 200 to feel satisfied. So I run because I love it, it makes me feel good, and especially these days with two young kids. It's me time, so I really need that half an hour, hour every day just to get out there and clear my head and get fresh air and have time to myself. So yeah, I do exercise. Not every day, probably five times a week. I teach Pilates, so my job is sort of related to fitness, but I definitely feel better if I'm exercising. But there's always going to be a little part of me that's addicted to exercise. I want to do it every day, but if I can't do it for whatever reason, but one day, I don't beat myself up about it.
Ben: What have you found to be the sweet spot for exercise that allows you to feel fit and healthy, but not feel like you're addicted as far as minutes per day or minutes per week?
Vanessa: I like to do something every day, but I am satisfied with just a walk now. I do like to get my heart rate up three or four times a week, so I try to plan the week at the start of the week, and say okay, well Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I'll just do a light jog, and maybe Tuesday, Thursday, I'll go a little bit harder. Then Saturday, I'll have a rest day. Something like that, so I think it is all about finding that balance. I'm also a lot better now at listening to my body, so if I do feel a bit fatigued, then I know that the next day, I'm just going to back off and not do anything. I also fuel my body a lot better these days. I don't count every calorie that goes into my mouth. I eat what I would like to eat, I'm relatively healthy, but I don't beat myself up if I have a couple of desserts. So yeah, it is everything in moderation. It's about finding that balance, and these days, I have other priorities in my life. I've got two beautiful daughters and a husband and there's other things going on that I guess are more important than running, but I make sure that I have the balance.
Ben: Yeah, it's such a good point to that I want to make sure that we don't underemphasize. You have things in your life that are important, right? You have a greater purpose now, you have, and I think that's really important is for folks who are perhaps pursuing exercise as the end-all or as the reason to get out of bed in the morning. You have to find something because again, there's nothing wrong with exercise, and certainly there are some people listening in I know are pro-athletes. That is your paycheck, and that is your identity. But for a lot of other folks, if the exercise is your identity and if you're rolling out of bed in the morning knowing that day is not going to feel complete until you're ticked off the sixty minutes or the ninety minutes or the two hours, I really do think one of the best things that you can do is find meaning in life, and I'm saying that is much easier than actually doing it, but once you find that greater purpose, once you find something that actually fulfills you way more than exercise would, whether it be a relationship, whether it be kids, whether it be writing a book, whether it be going out and helping the homeless or helping to feed people in your local community. There's all sorts of things that all of a sudden make exercise seem not that terribly important once you've discovered them.
Vanessa: That's right. Exercise should just be something that you include in your day, but it doesn't take up the whole part of your day and it doesn't control your life.
Ben: Yeah, it's such a good point because I do know there are so many people, and I've certainly found myself in this spot before as well who just live for physical activity, live for that exercise high. So I'm really glad you wrote this book, Vanessa, and it's a fantastic read.
Vanessa: I’m glad it’s out Ben, too. Thank you.
Ben: It’s a fantastic read. I have no clue how it wound up on my doorstep. I think your book agent sent it to me, but either way, I'll link to the book and also to some of the other things that we talked about today over on the show notes, so if you're listening in, you can go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitnothealthy. That's bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitnothealthy, you can check out Vanessa's story, her book by the same name and everything else that we talked about. So, Vanessa, thanks for coming on the show.
Vanessa: Thank you so much for having me, it's been a pleasure.
Ben: Alright folks, well this is Ben Greenfield and Vanessa Alford from “Fit, Not Healthy” signing out from The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast. Have a healthy week.
Exercise is supposed to be good for you. But for some people, exercise can become a deadly obsession.
My guest in this podcast episode is Vanessa Alford, author of the new book “Fit, Not Healthy“, which is a warning to all high achievers driven to extremes to excel.
As a young girl growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Alford loved sports: she began gymnastics at age six, netball at seven, and tennis at age ten. She was, in her words, “born to compete”, and both her gymnastics and netball teams won the state championships in her age group. During her early years of sports, she ran to train and to keep fit, but describes it as an obligation, not a pleasure.
After graduating college, Alford began to run regularly: she would set the alarm for 6am, jog for 8k (around an hour) along the beach and be home by 7am, which gave her time to eat breakfast before cycling 15k to work. But soon, her 8k runs became 10k runs, and 12k runs on the weekends.
Soon, both the runs and the ride became mandatory morning rituals, “just like a shot of coffee or booze”, that left her euphoric, floating for the rest of the day on dopamine and adrenaline. “This feeling of elation would sweep over me,” she says, “I just couldn't get enough of it.”
Within months, she had dropped over 10 pounds and a dress size, and then she started running marathons. Nike and PowerBar sponsored her. Her runs became longer and more grueling, and were soon accompanied by a strict dietary protocol in which she counted every calorie, and monitored every morsel that entered her mouth.
Soon she was running up to 160k a week while surviving on a diet low in fat and low in carbohydrates too. Her body began wasting away, slowly cannibalizing itself, and shutting down non-essential physiological systems. She was exercising herself to death. People warned her, they told her to stop, and her boyfriend told her she had lost her mind. But she couldn't stop.
Then finally, Vanessa's body stopped for her, as she collapsed in the middle of a race after losing sensation in her legs.
In today's podcast interview, you're going to find out exactly what happened, how exercise addiction occurs, how you can recover from adrenal fatigue, how you can test your body to see if you're exercising too much, and much more, including:
-The difference between exercise addiction and a runner's high…
-What's going on psychologically that makes some people feel like they need to go do things like triathlons, marathons or adventure races…
-Why you often need more and more exercise to achieve the same “high”…
-What happens chemically that is making you feel so down, so lazy, or so depressed if you stop exercising at the same volume or frequency that you were at before…
-Why will rats run until they drop dead on an exercise wheel…
-And much more!
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