Can You Be Addicted to Exercise?

mage of a woman drinking water with bowls of vegetables beside her after a workout

We know it is good for us and are always being advised to exercise. This advice is well-intentioned as “seven of the ten most common chronic diseases are favourably influenced by regular physical activity” according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans produced by the US Department of Health & Human Services.

It goes on to say that around 50 percent of American adults have one or more chronic diseases that are preventable – if they took more care of themselves, including exercise. That’s 117 million people.

But, astonishingly, 80 percent of adults are not meeting guidelines for both muscle-strengthening and aerobic activities. Tragically, this is linked to around 10 percent of premature deaths.

Current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity as well as two days of muscle-strengthening activity every week. Also, to reduce sitting time and move around more often.

However, some people are actually doing far more than this. But at a certain point, it does not mean they will be getting healthier.

In fact, doing too much exercise can be detrimental to not only physical well-being – but emotional and mental health too. Some people even become exercise addicts.

How many people are exercise addicts?

For approximately three percent of the US adult population, their exercise regime is bad for them. That’s the percentage of people thought to be exercise addicts – and that means more than seven million Americans.

Exercise addiction is a recognized problem. It is seen to be extremely high among people with eating disorders – approximately 39-48 percent of people suffering from an eating disorder are addicted to exercising excessively.

For this group, it is used as another way to prevent weight gain such as vomiting and misusing laxatives. In this way, it is considered a “compensatory behavior” to counteract the effects of eating: to alleviate the person’s guilt associated with eating and/or to avoid putting on weight.

But exercise addiction is in fact most prevalent in triathletes at 52 percent and marathon runners at 50 percent. In endurance athletes it is around 14 percent; ten percent for those playing ball games; and about eight percent for those going to fitness centers.

Exercise addiction has not yet been designated as an addictive disorder in the DSM-5 mental health disorders guidebook. Research into it is ongoing, although it is regarded as one of the most common behavioral addictions.

It is also seen to be a compulsive behavior. A compulsion is when someone seems to have an uncontrollable and overwhelming urge to do something, and usually in a particular way.

It can often be that the person does not particularly even enjoy it. But they feel it is a duty or task they simply must do – and usually before anything else.

Is exercise addiction similar to other addictions?

How Physical Exercise Can Benefit Mental Health

Most addictions are a way to push down, numb or mask emotional and mental pain. It’s as Dr. Gabor Maté says: “My mantra on addiction is – not why the addiction, but why the pain?”

So, if someone does not like the way they are feeling, anything that changes the way they feel has the capacity to become an addiction. It acts as a distraction and is designed to be all-consuming.

It is not just the using or doing. It’s also the planning, preparation, and recovering afterwards.

As with addictions, there is usually an associated high as well – and following the activity, there is a low that drives the craving for another high.

Exercise releases pleasure and reward chemicals in the body that reduce the perception of pain. These include endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.

It is also believed that as exercise causes a rise in core body temperature it is also increasing the temperature of specific brain regions. Known as the thermogenic hypothesis, this can reduce anxiety and lead to an overall feeling of relaxation.

Exercise addiction does fall into one frequently used definition of addiction. That is someone doing something that is detrimental to them and usually those around them as well – but not seeming able to stop and stay stopped from doing it.

Exercise addiction can cause many physical injuries. But it also leads to mental and emotional anguish.

It can mean that such family, friends and work suffer because of the amount of time the exercise addict spends on their exercise. As with all addictions, it can leave the addict feeling disconnected and lonely.

In fact, they may start to increasingly spend more time on their own. This could be even if they’re at a fitness center – as they become so focused on what they feel compelled to do that there is little, if any, interaction.

They may also start to eat in certain unhealthy ways or avoid eating altogether in order to boost muscle mass. Additionally, they might start using anabolic steroids, which can cause all sorts of problems to the cardiovascular system, liver, skin, and hormones, as well as cause aggression, mania, and delusions.

An “approved” addiction

One major problem with exercise addiction is that, as with workaholism, exercising is something that is encouraged and praised in Western society. This is in just the same manner that working hard is often seen as a positive thing – even if someone is clearly stressed, eating poorly, becoming ill from it, and hardly sees their family and friends.

In fact, people are often praised for these two behavioral addictions. They are often actually supported by family, friends, and colleagues.

However, it can become obvious that someone’s exercising is detrimental to their well-being. One sign that it’s an addiction is the seeming inability of the person to cut down or stop exercising.

This could even be to allow time for an injury or illness to get better. Or ignoring the advice of an expert such as a doctor, training coach or physiotherapist.

Excessive weight loss or for some people looking too muscle-bound can be obvious external signs of exercise addiction. But, once again, if advice about this means cutting down or quitting, an exercise addict will not feel as if they actually can.

It’s difficult to see the difference between who is committed to getting fit and healthy or a dedicated athlete, and who’s an exercise addict. This is because the drive for it comes from inside.

So someone committed to getting and staying healthy has the desire to get fit or the dedication to reach a sporting goal. But an exercise addict feels as if they have to do it because they have an overwhelming need and an urge that they feel they simply cannot fight.

Exercise addicts have similar traits to other addicts. These are:

•   Obsessing over the behavior, which often disrupts daily normal living.

•   Continuing the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm.

•   Engaging in the behavior despite it causing emotional problems.

•   Carrying on despite wanting to stop.

•   Engaging in the behavior in secret.

Who is most likely to get addicted to exercise?

Anyone can get addicted to exercise. It is a difficult addiction to recognize.

Many people who are exercise addicts will have difficulty dealing with their emotions. This is perhaps, especially anxiety, stress, anger and grief

One reason for this – as with work that becomes workaholism – is that society tells us it’s good to do these things. Working all hours or going to the gym every day for a few hours is not something that is generally seen as unhealthy or a “bad” thing to do.

As the statistics stated earlier show, most people who become exercise addicts are those involved in a sport or users of a fitness center. But University of Southern California research suggests that around one in four exercise addicts could have other behavioral addictions. 

This research also suggests that 15 percent of exercise addicts have addictions to alcohol, drugs, and/or cigarettes. In fact, many people starting recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction often seek to make up for lost time on the physical damage they have caused to their body, or how they’ve let themselves go.

So they can turn to exercise. But sometimes in an unhealthy way as it can become their new addiction.

Exercise is even promoted as part of a recovery program from most addictions. It is easy to understand how many people are bewildered that exercise itself can become an addiction.

In addition, recent research found that exercise addiction is nearly four times greater among those suffering from an eating disorder. This British study was published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders.

Research published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal revealed that 75 percent of exercise addicts also have a mental health disorder. This study looked at 156 people who reported exercising more than 10 hours every week and who carried on exercising despite an injury or illness. 

Three-quarters of them had at least one other mental health disorder. The most common were depressive disorders (56 percent), personality disorders (47 percent), and obsessive-compulsive disorders (31 percent).

Exercise addiction is also often seen in those who struggle with narcissism and perfectionism. As well, it is often a problem for people with body dysmorphic disorder – when someone is obsessed with parts of their body that they perceive to be different or flawed.

What are the major symptoms of exercise addiction?

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•   Feeling euphoric after exercising.

•   Having overwhelming desires to exercise.

•   Spending far more time exercising than recommended by health and fitness experts.

•   Neglecting, cutting down or stopping social, family, and work events in order to exercise.

•   Repeatedly going over planned exercise time. 

•   Spending increasing amounts of time planning, preparing and recovering from exercise.

•   Obsessively thinking about exercising whenever not exercising.

•   Spending too much money on exercising and equipment or anabolic steroids.

•   Not seeming able to reduce the amount of time spent exercising.

•   Getting increasingly obsessed over appearance. Tattoo and plastic surgery addictions are for this reason often linked. 

•   Continuing to exercise despite injury, illness, negative emotional consequences, and medical advice to cut down or quit for a while.

•   Waking up early to exercise, exercising late into the night or even exercising when unable to sleep at night.

•   Often experiencing a feeling of remorse after doing exercise in front of and above all, including spending time with family and friends or working.

•   Never or rarely having a day off from exercising. Going on holiday but not having a break from exercising.

•   As the high of exercising starts to diminish due to getting more used to it, the amount of time and effort put into exercising is increased.

•   Getting withdrawal symptoms when not exercising. These include anxiety, depression, restlessness, irritability, guilt, tension, sleeplessness, headaches, and loss of appetite.

•   Feeling initially a sense of being in control from exercising. But as with other addictions, this is about trying to deal with the inner disorder that is overwhelming and painfully felt. In the end, this sort of attempt to have control leads to a loss of control over normal life. They usually become the most obvious and first problem to deal with as the addiction starts to control the addict.

Negative effects of exercise addiction

passed out from exercise

There are plenty of negative consequences of exercise addiction. These are:

Damaging physical effects:

•     Fatigue

•     Muscle soreness

•     Muscle strains

•     Frequent illnesses

•     Headaches

•     Decreased appetite or total loss of appetite

•     Joint soreness

•     General body aches

•     Insomnia

•     Premature osteoporosis

•     Shin splints

•     Increased susceptibility to illness and infection

•     Decreased motor coordination

•     Rhabdomyolysis (destruction of certain muscle cells)

•     Irregular periods and possible reproductive issues

•     Extreme weight loss

•     From anabolic steroid use: fluid retention; sleep problems; acne; nerve damage from injecting; reduced sperm count; infertility; shrunken testicles; erectile dysfunction; higher cholesterol; hair loss; increased risk of prostate cancer; stomach pain; increased risk of stroke or heart attack; high blood pressure; kidney or liver problems or failure.

Damaging emotional and mental problems:

•     Irritability

•     Anger

•     Depression

•     Hostility

•     Low self-esteem

•     Anxiety

•     Stress

•     Poor concentration

•     Strained relationships

•     Feelings of loneliness and disconnection from other people

•     Suffering continuous compulsive thoughts

•     From anabolic steroid use: mood swings; aggression; paranoia; delusions; manic behavior; hallucinations; and an increase in libido that can cause emotional problems. Some people develop an addiction to anabolic steroids.

How can I beat an exercise addiction?

weight and exercise consultation

Exercise addiction is not usually diagnosed. Most exercise addicts cannot see that there is anything wrong with their exercise program.

Likewise, as has been stated, society, in general, encourages exercise as a positive thing, which it is until a line is crossed. Presently, there are no official specific diagnostic criteria for its diagnosis.

If someone does recognize they have a problem, the obvious solution is to limit how much they are exercising. Or quit for a while and resume – but do much less.

However, as with any addiction, it is simply not that easy. In fact, stopping can sometimes seem relatively simple – but staying stopped is the real test.

Also, many people who stop one addiction simply start another. The reason is that whatever it is that’s behind the compulsion of addiction needs to be addressed.

Therefore the most effective way to find a solution to an exercise addiction is by speaking with someone who has expertise in it. Our experienced carefully selected team of experts has helped people with all emotional and mental health issues.

Get in touch with us to discuss how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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