‘Like Adele, I Felt Addicted To Exercise When It Became My Mental Illness Escape’

The singer describes being obsessed with working out up to three times a day, and using exercise to avoid an anxiety disorder is something Georgia Aspinall knows all too well.


by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Last night, Adele broke the internet with her first in-depth interview about her divorce, weight loss and new album. Speaking to both British and American Vogue, the 33-year-old singer opened up about the reaction to her much-discussed figure change and how her commitment to exercise was never actually about fitting into a certain dress size.

‘It was because of my anxiety,' Adele explained. 'Working out, I would just feel better. It was never about losing weight, it was always about becoming strong and giving myself as much time every day without my phone. I got quite addicted to it. I work out two or three times a day.'

Of course, her admission that she works out up to three times a day has been met with wide eyes. Experts suggest that exercise is best performed four to five times per week, less so for beginners, and even the staunchest of fitness influencers would tell you that exercising more than twice a day is extreme.

‘I do my weights in the morning, then I normally hike or I box in the afternoon, and then I go and do my cardio at night,’ she elaborated. ‘I was basically unemployed when I was doing it. And I do it with trainers… It’s not doable for a lot of people.’

But what’s notable about Adele’s wording is the use of ‘addicted’, suggesting she’s not necessarily promoting such high levels of exercise. Nonetheless, her quote has caused a firestorm of Google searches on her weight loss. ‘How much did Adele weigh?’ is a breakout search term right now, as well as ‘How Adele lost weight’ and the exact number of pounds Adele lost over her two years (which is, quite problematically, featured in the article).

It’s a predictable reaction - what happens whenever Adele posts a picture on Instagram, never mind actually talks about her weight loss. But for me, just talking about how Adele lost weight misses the entire point.

Like Adele, I started exercising as a mental escape from anxiety. Not nerves, not slight stress, real clinical anxiety: a panic disorder if you want to get technical. Adele says she ‘needed to get addicted to get [her] mind right’, and oh honey… same.

I would spend up to four hours in the gym and find any way to exercise no matter how tired I was.

When I tell people I exercise for my mental health, it’s often met with a heavy sigh from those who simply don’t believe that’s my motivation. I guess they assume I’m doing it for weight loss -or in my case weight gain - shrouding my intention in the more socially acceptable motivation of ‘self-care’. But it’s not self-care, it’s quite literally therapy. To be honest, with NHS waiting lists and private healthcare out of my price range, it’s most accessible form of therapy that I can actually afford.

Weightlifting is my favourite form of exercise because the movements are often so complex, heavy and dangerous that you can’t possibly think about anything else. Sat under a barbell piled with 150kg worth of weight plates, my brain can’t offer intrusive thoughts if it tried. For a small portion of the day, my mind is free from the relentless, panicked monologue that tells me I’m about to die for no logical reason at all. It’s absolute bliss, and like Adele, I’ve often found it addictive.

For the first two years of my exercise obsession, I would spend up to four hours in the gym on weekends - slowly going through my leg day routine, taking 30 minutes to warm up and cool down just for an excuse to stay in my ‘happy place’. On weekdays, I would find a way to exercise no matter how late or tired I was – knowing that on particularly stressful weeks, it’s all that keeps anxious thoughts from spiralling. I found myself cancelling plans with friends to go the gym, obsessing over nutrition that could aid my workout programme and purchasing every accessory equipment under the sun.

When I speak anecdotally about my exercise routine, particularly those half-day gym sessions, eyebrows would furrow with concern for me. Even then, I could see why, I was well aware it sounded like exercise addiction - and more than once I wondered whether I was trading one mental illness for another.

I started to wonder whether I was trading one mental illness for another.

It occurred to me quite poignantly in 2019, around three years into my love of weightlifting, when a fitness influencer I loved posted a YouTube video reviewing her old ‘What I Eat In A Day’ videos. In my early days of weightlifting, I followed her exercise guides and nutrition videos to the letter, which when you’re obsessing over building muscle often go hand in hand.

The influencer was looking back at her attitude to food, how obsessed she was with her protein intake and how terrified she appeared to be of carbs. ‘You can just see how insanely small I was,’ she says while watching her old video. ‘My only fitness goal at this time was to be as skinny and tiny as possible, it was a very unhealthy mindset. It’s insane how restrictive I was.’

My overriding thought? Shit, I learned everything I know about nutrition from you. It was incredible to me that despite being an intelligent, well-informed young woman, a lot of what informed the basis of my exercise and nutrition knowledge came from someone who was on the verge of disordered eating and exercise addiction while giving it.

I started to rethink my own attitude towards nutrition and exercise, whether I cared too much about what I was eating and prioritised exercise too often. Was my mental oasis actually a new kind of vice? The thought lingered for months, but at the same time, I wondered, what could I actually do about it? Finding a hobby that genuinely improves my mental illness symptoms is rare for me, and with so much validation about how I was eating, exercising and looking, this exercise obsession felt like a positive trade-off compared to my exhausting panic disorder symptoms.

It was lockdown that changed everything for me. Being unable to exercise with heavy weights was the biggest test I’ve experienced in the nine years since being diagnosed with my disorder. My symptoms certainly got worse, my triggers became more far-reaching and there were often times I feared my disorder would spiral out of control and substantially impact the life I’d built.

But surviving that relatively sane, it was liberating in a way. As the months went on, each day was proof that I could manage my disorder without weightlifting and not end up needing serious help, I found new ways to cope and started to value exercise in an entirely different way. As gyms reopened, it became healthy addition to how I manage mental illness, instead of the sole reason I survive it.

Now, while I still love weightlifting and consider an important part of my life, I would no longer describe myself as ‘addicted’. Lockdown seems to have had the opposite effect for Adele, but what led me to my realisation about my relationship with mental illness and exercise was maintaining self-awareness. That’s something Adele has in spades, and hopefully – whether her obsession feels good for her or not – that’s how she’ll ensure a healthy relationship with exercise no matter what people are saying about her.

Read More:

Adele Opens Up About Her Divorce, Weight Loss And What The Tabloids Have Got Wrong

When Does Enthusiasm For Exercise Become An Addiction?

What People Are Saying On Social Media About Adele Versus What They’re Googling Says A Lot

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