“I would have bad experience after bad experience, and I would be so anxious about it,” she says of trying to get to the race. (Most runners must prove a very fast finishing time to enter.) “It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The race, which started as something fun, turned into a battle to prove to everyone that I was worthy of Boston.”
Clore decided to work with a sports psychologist, who helped her make a discovery that changed her relationship to running: “I was caught up in my identity as a runner,” she says. “I had a lot of self-worth based on that, and when I wasn’t successful I got very depressed and frustrated.”
Under the psychologist’s guidance, Clore learns to think of herself as not one the runnerBut as a The person who drives. That mindset shift “changed everything,” Clore says, making running more fun and less stressful—and ultimately helped him qualify for Boston, which he’s done 12 times now and documented in his book, Boston Bound.
Clore’s experience is not unusual. So often, unlike other hobbies, fitness takes over our identity. We don’t just run – we are a runner; We don’t just do CrossFit—we’re a CrossFitter; We don’t just hike – we are a hiker. Our favorite workouts can outpace our lifestyles, our social media feeds, our daily style choices, and perhaps many of our conversations.
Obsessing over our favorite fitness hobby doesn’t have to be a bad thing—in fact, it can motivate us to spend more time being active and help us build meaningful communities and relationships with others who are similarly obsessed. But over-identification with fitness at the expense of other identities, interests and roles can pose risks to both our mental and physical health.
Why fitness-lovers are prone to overdiagnosis
Considering how versatile most of our fitness routines are, it makes sense that many of us are invested—or very Invest – in them. Fitness can not only be a source of fun and happiness (and endorphins!), but it can also improve our health, boost confidence, and reduce anxiety, says Patricia Lally, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and professor at Lock Haven University.
Taking up such hobbies makes us feel good about ourselves for making healthy choices, especially in a culture that values physical fitness.
Our workout routines can also become an integral part of our social lives: it’s notoriously difficult for adults to make new friends outside of work, and group runs, exercise classes, and gym memberships can fill the void and become the answer to the question, “What do you do for fun?” do?”
The fitness industry is designed to create this sense of social cohesion, because the more we identify with our fitness routine, the more time and money we’re likely to spend, says Brian Cook, Ph.D., a researcher who studies exercise identity and addiction ( (Think about how many fitness studios and brands use language like “fit fam” or “tribe” in their marketing.) Sometimes, as in Clore’s case, this social aspect of fitness can create pressure to perform better—which leads to more. More time is spent exercising, and less time developing other interests and identities.
The danger of making fitness your identity
Our identity is supposed to be multidimensional, composed of many roles that come to the surface at appropriate moments, says Dr. Lally. “But when we over-identify with a single role,” she says, “we see all those other roles through the lens of the primary role. So when we’re at work, we’re still thinking about running, or we can’t go and watch our child’s activities. Because we have to run.”
When a fitness obsession begins to take over who we are, we risk losing the many other roles we invest in that surround our lives, which can be pushed back and missed in poor relationships, work, or school. Other activities we enjoy, says Dr. Lally. And by identifying primarily as a “runner” or “cyclist” or “hiker,” we’re implicitly asking fitness to meet all of our needs, which it will never be able to do, Dr. Cook says.
Clore says that after stripping herself of the “runner” identity, she felt she had a “personality replacement.” He noticed that he became less uptight, and more fun, more grateful and more interested in others.
Over-identification with fitness can also lead to compulsive exercise, Dr. Lali said. It comes with many risks, including overtraining and injury, and withdrawal symptoms such as feeling irritable, anxious or restless when we can’t work out.
And as much as we don’t want to imagine not being able to participate in our favorite activities, unfortunately, an injury, illness, or other circumstance can prevent us from exercising at any time, short or long-term—so tying up our self-worth is a dangerous game. “What we’re really saying is our value,” says Trent Petrie, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and professor at the University of North Texas. “Is my value as a person defined solely by my ability to engage in this identity?”
How to make sure your fitness obsession is a healthy one
To be clear, Clore still calls himself a “runner”—after all, “one who runs” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Plus, she feels it’s important to show her thousands of Instagram followers that imposter syndrome won’t stop them from calling themselves “runners” if they really run—no matter how far or how fast.
But, even though he’s built a life around running, he thinks he’ll be fundamentally OK if he has to stop, he says. “It’s always a question I like to ask myself as a mental check in.”
Dr. Cook agrees that the question of whether or not you can stop or at least take a break from your fitness regimen is a helpful one in determining whether you’re investing too much. When you go on vacation, do you think you need to find a gym, or do jumping jacks in your hotel room? If you find yourself trying to fit in a workout at the expense of other priorities — whether it’s rest, family, work or self-care — ask yourself why you feel the need to do so, advises Dr. Cook.
For Clore, building a healthy relationship with running meant acknowledging that the sport wasn’t her—and taking the time to figure out what defined her at its core. “I started thinking about all the good qualities I brought to my running,” she says, like her work ethic and her intelligence. “Once you start valuing yourself for these things, it doesn’t matter what time the clock is.”
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