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Elizabeth Hartney, PhD

When Does Working Out Become an Addiction?

By January 29, 2013

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Exercise addiction is probably the most contradictory of all the addictions. Not only is exercise a widely promoted health behavior, it is an important part of recovery from another addiction, and an effective part of treatment for depression and other mental health problems. This is because exercise has many psychological benefits, as well as physical benefits. In fact, the positive effects of exercise, and particularly outdoor exercise are on a par with medications as a treatment for depression, which often co-occurs with or underlies addictions.

Yet, like everything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. And it is possible to develop an addiction to exercise, in much the same way you can develop other behavioral addictions.

So how do you know whether you are engaged in a healthy lifestyle, or whether you have a problem? Well, the first step is to understand what an addiction is. Think about how you would feel if you were unable to exercise for a day, a week, or indefinitely. Would it bother you? Would it be a nice rest? Most importantly, would you find it hard to cope with life without daily exercise?

If you feel distressed at the thought of not being able to exercise every day, and at a loss for how you would manage your feelings and get through the day and night without exercising at some point, it may be time to seek help. Unfortunately, exercise addiction is not well recognised, so may not be as well-resourced as other addictions, such as alcohol and drugs. However, your family doctor should be able to advise you, and you may be able to access support through an addictions clinic. Psychologists are usually well-trained in helping people manage change in their lives, so finding a psychologist to support you may also be an option.

If you are exercising frequently, but are not really concerned about how it would feel if you couldn't exercise, you are probably not addicted, although it may be worth discussing how much exercise is healthy for you with your family doctor, or someone with expertise in exercise, such as a personal trainer or gym instructor. The amount and type of exercise that is healthy will depend on many factors, including your age, health, sex, and physical condition. If you find it hard to limit your exercise to what they advise, it may be time to seek help.

Comments
January 8, 2009 at 5:46 pm
(1) Paige says:

Great post, Elizabeth! There’s such a fine line between being an exercise fanatic and taking things too far into addiction. You’re right that some people may not recognize it’s a problem since exercise is something we want people to do (and, often, the more the better). Thanks for bringing this into the light.

January 8, 2009 at 9:22 pm
(2) addictions says:

I absolutely agree. Most people need more exercise, and should be encouraged to exercise daily.

January 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm
(3) Tana says:

Thank you for this post. I am an addict in recovery that before I came to a 12 step program, I had many years of non-use but no recovery during this time… for me I know about exercise as an addiction along with many other actions that have nothing to do with drugs… ones actions can become just as obsessive and compulsive as any drugs i could ever put into my body…

January 14, 2009 at 7:42 pm
(4) addictions says:

Good point, and one that has been recognized by some authors. Patrick Carnes, who wrote a lot on sex addiction, says that rather than categorizing the behavior, we should focus on what the behavior is doing for the person.

Many behaviors are used by addicts and non-addicts to alter the way they feel, including food, gambling, alcohol, and high-risk experiences.

When one behavior become depended on as THE way to control feelings, it becomes an addiction.

November 25, 2010 at 9:51 pm
(5) rick says:

I think im addicted. I can’t even do my home work because i come home from school and go to the gym for 2 and a half hours. The days i can’t workout because i have to work I quickly workout for a half hour at home and the whole time im at work im down because i think i need to go to the gym. I spend over 200 a month on my membership and supplements and I can’t just quit buying them, I look better and I feel alot stronger. I love being noticed for my figure so I think if i stop I wont get comments anymore I like being the big guy so I strive to be bigger than what I am now. I’m 17 and have been working out for about a year and a half i workout 5 times a week and take supplements everyday. Is this normal for a teenager?, I cant even eat fast food EVER and rarely eat bad at home because i think im going to get “fat”.

November 26, 2010 at 11:28 am
(6) Elizabeth says:

Rick,

It is completely normal for teens to focus on their appearance, to want to be liked and accepted, and to develop an intense liking of certain activities.

The main two things to consider about whether you have an addiction to exercise are:

1. Whether you can cope without it. If you feel emotionally overwhelmed without your daily workout, you need to start to find new, more effective ways of dealing with the daily stress we all face.

2. Whether it is causing you problems. It sounds like you are having difficulty finding time for school work because you are working out so much. When other parts of life start to suffer as a result of addictive behavior, it’s time to get help.

Find out whether there is a school counselor who might be able to help you with getting your exercise down to a healthy habit, rather than something that dominates your life. They may not get that there is a problem right away, so make sure you tell them about the two points I’ve mentioned above.

If the school counselor doesn’t work out (no pun intended!), talk to your parents about it. They might be able to pay for you to see a counselor privately, or they might help you to manage your stress in healthy ways and focus a bit more on your school work.

Good luck!

April 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm
(7) Danielle says:

I think i have a really bad problem. im 20 years old female and ive been working out since i was about 16 but it slowly kept increasing. I work out for about 2 hours every day mostley cardio some muscle training. If i dont work out i pretty much drive my self crazy. i feel so down and out of it. i beat my self up so hard the next day for not working out the day before. especially when im sick and completley undable to get out of bed i am in the worst mood becuase i cannot excersise. i was very over weight through high school. i think i might be afriad of gaining the weight back or im just insane. some one please offer me some advise. thanks.

April 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm
(8) Danielle says:

also i forgot to mention i have not had fast food in over 3 years ive sliped in a chicken burrito from taco bell occasionaly but wow does that destroy me mentaliy. i prettymuch eat at home. i am not a crazy dieter. i just dont eat junk food at all. i drink water and tea. with sweet n low sugar. i honestly dont even like doing any daily activites before i have had my work out. its driving me nuts. my family thinks i need to be on “one of those obbsessive shows” but i dont know i wish excersise did not take over my life the way it has. it was something i use to really enjoy and now i cant cope with out it.

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December 8, 2011 at 11:28 am
(10) Michelle says:

I workout anywhere from 2-5 hours daily.
Today probably not because I can’t move. It’s bothering me, but I’ll just sleep all day and not eat anything.

I have problems with working because I don’t have enough time to workout, or sometimes the work is too physical and I get too tired after work to go. Physical work is not exercise in my opinion.

I quit my job to workout full time.

I was diagnosed with major depression. The pills and the exercise keep me sane. Or.. My definition of sane, anyway. :-)

January 23, 2013 at 11:12 am
(11) anthony bolton says:

Great to read this. I have come to realize I can`t function without going to the gym everyday .so much so that i feel guilt , stress, severe restlessness and fatique when I don`t go . This has been going on for years and in fact has obstructed many other activities for me such as living a life .It is the contradiction inherent in this addictive behavior which makes it hard to deal with.Any time I have some pressure or task that must be done such as getting a job, etc. the desire to go to the gym will impose itself like this`you`ll feel more confident if you work out first“or“ first I`ll go to the gym then my mind will be more relaxed“.Of course neither turns out to be the case.In fact a workout makes me stressed and body(self) conscious rather than confident. On the other hand the only solution seems t be abstaining from exercise which of course is not a good idea either . No space left.

January 23, 2013 at 11:21 am
(12) anthony bolton says:

A common thread in these comments seems to be that people began exercising to counterbalance some other event or extreme state earlier in life .I suffered from a scoliosis when i was a teenager and subsequently felt weak and uncomfortable. In reaction in my twenties i began working out 3-4 hours a day . Still now if I miss excercise for a day or two i will feel that old insecurity creeping in even though I have been fit for fifteen years.
I believe that excercises such a Tai-cHi and yoga (tho i`m sure someone somewhere is addicted to them too ) are far more beneficial particularly in dealing with stress.
Well, i`m off to the gym.

January 31, 2013 at 7:08 pm
(13) jamesd says:

self-serving comments :seek help
naive comments: find it hard to limit your exercise
exercise is not an addiction at any level. a person may engage in sports to the detriment of their social life or financial situation, for example, but thats simply poor decision making. If a person walks to work every day because they like that, are they then addicted since they find it hard to limit their exercise??

an addiction, by definiition, requires that cessation of the activity causes severe trauma. No one has ever felt trauma from stopping exercising. If they have, its probably due to something entirely unrelated, like reading web articles by people who completely fail to understand exercising at basic, moderate, advanced and professional levels.

the concept of addiction has no business playing around in the highly worthwhile sandbox of exercise and health. [edited for offensive content]

February 6, 2013 at 10:38 pm
(14) Joseph Martin says:

I would strongly encourage anyone struggling with over exercising to consider something, “how does exercising cause you to feel?”
And whatever that feeling is, have you ever considered finding another way to “get that feeling without stopping the exercising?”
You may find that obtaining this “feeling” that you like, is obtainable in other “healthy” and “positive” ways.
What if you were able to continue to continue to exercise AND get the same feeling another way?
Would it be possible that the exercising could not be so excessive because exercising is “good for you” and so is feeling good.
If you’d like to learn more about what is possible check out http://www.WhatIsAnAddiction.com and find out for yourself – if you have and addiction and what you can do about it. Peace be with you on this journey you are on.

March 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm
(15) Weightlossallergic says:

I’m cured! I’m finally cured! I’m cured after so many years!!! A neurologist has finally decribed me the pills that stopped the daily pressure in the chest region that made me so nervous for years! For years, it stopped only from exercise. The beginning of this annoying sensation had been my daily aerobics fifteen years ago. Healthy food and normal exercise hadn’t made me very slim so I turned to daily aerobics in an aerobics club. This caused the need of daily running or aerobics to avoid this very annoying pressure in my chest.
Those doctors who are saying sport addiction doesn’t exist are obviously ignorant. And those doctors who demand that everybody be very slim are ignorant of what this demand can do to people.

April 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm
(16) jhall says:

Rick, your in the gym too long. And trust me you don’t need all them suppliments to get big. Keep it simple eat right and work hard. Save the money and ditch the ” man-in-a-can” . I try to keep it around an hour a day, any more and your wasting your time. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a stronger man, but you gotta take control.

April 2, 2013 at 11:44 am
(17) paul says:

Hi Im 32 years old and nonthing makes me feel better then working out.I workout about 5 times a week hour And half sometimes up to 3 hours a day. I do this for months at a time without taking more then 3 days off, when I do take days off I feel out of wack ..

May 12, 2013 at 7:40 am
(18) Sarg says:

This has honestly got to be the most absurd article I have ever read.In order to obtain physical fitness it requires dedication, discipline and above all time. In order to yeild any serious results you would have to be working out for atleast a year.Keeping a fit body is a choice that requires a certain lifestyle just like any other athlete.I do notice in the comments people say that train for two plus hours and that is overtraining.It is about getting the most of your time there not who can spend the most time there.Ive lifted since my freshman year in high school and have never used any type of performance enhancer. I cannot even tell you how many people I’ve helped get in shape and inspired to lead a healthier life. There are a lot of time consuming hobbies that would be more detrimental to your health then working out.I say all this out of my pure passion for it.I thank god everyday that I am healthy and able to use my body.

May 12, 2013 at 7:44 am
(19) Sarg Merza says:

I forgot to add I’m 28 so I’ve been working out for almost 13 years now

July 11, 2013 at 10:16 am
(20) addiction says:

An interesting discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you ought to write more on this issue, it might not be a taboo subject but usually people do not discuss such subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

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October 30, 2013 at 8:52 am
(23) Athlete says:

If I’m going to have an addiction, I’d rather be addicted to exercise! Now SHUT THE F*&k up and squat!

December 27, 2013 at 4:03 pm
(24) read here says:

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May 12, 2014 at 1:44 am
(25) Courtney says:

To those who say they work out 5 days a week I don’t really think that the addiction counts for you…I’m pretty sure people with a gym addiction goes 7 days a week for like maybe 5 or 6 or 7 hours a day..that’s what a addiction to the gym is not 5 days because obviously the other 2 days you are obviously relaxing…

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