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What Is Exercise Addiction?

When Working Out Becomes an Addiction

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Updated May 20, 2014

Exercise Addiction -- Healthy or Harmful?

Exercise Addiction -- Healthy or Harmful?

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Exercise addiction may not necessarily sound like a bad thing to everyone. After all, numerous studies have demonstrated the physical and emotional health benefits of regular exercise -- it is essential to our well-being. Unlike other addictive behaviors, we are encouraged to exercise more. However, there is such a thing as exercise addiction -- and it can have harmful consequences.

Several characteristics distinguish healthy regular exercise from exercise addiction.

Firstly, exercise addiction is maladaptive, so instead of improving the person’s life, it is causes more problems. Exercise addiction can threaten health, causing injuries, physical damage due to inadequate rest, and in some instances (particularly when co-occurring with an eating disorder), malnutrition and other problems.

Secondly, it is persistent, so an exercise addict exercises too much and for too long without giving the body a chance to recover. We all overexert ourselves on occasion, and usually rest afterwards. But exercise addicts exercise for hours every day, regardless of fatigue or illness. As the individual’s principle way of coping with stress, they experience anxiety if they are unable to do so.

The Confusion Over and Controversy of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is probably the most contradictory of all the addictions. As well as being a widely promoted health behavior, important for the prevention and treatment for a range of ailments, it is an effective part of treatment for other mental health problems.

Exercise is even promoted as part of a complete program of recovery from other addictions. It forms part of new and effective approaches to treating mental health problems which commonly co-occur with or underlie addictions such as depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD). It's understandable how some are confused by how exercise could be an addiction itself.

Like other behavioral addictions, exercise addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive exercise can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms -- such as withdrawal -- for an activity to be a true addiction. Although there is considerable research showing that exercise releases endorphins (opioids produced within the body), and excessive exercise causes tolerance to the hormones and neurotransmitters released, these physiological processes are often not considered comparable to other substance addictions.

Exercise addiction is not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the gold standard for psychological diagnoses, although several authors have suggested diagnostic criteria. Excessive exercise is included in the DSM-IV as one of the criteria for the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, along with other “compensatory behaviors” used to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, and misuse of laxatives.

How Is Exercise Addiction Like Other Addictions?

There are several similarities between exercise addiction and drug addiction, including effects on mood, tolerance and withdrawal.

Neurotransmitters and the brain's reward system have been implicated in exercise and other addictions. For example, dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and regular, excessive exercise has been shown to influence parts of the brain involving dopamine.

Like other addictive substances and behaviors, exercise is associated with pleasure, and social, cultural or sub-cultural desirability.

Healthy Fitness vs. Exercise Addiction

Only 8% of gym users meet the criteria for exercise addiction. In the classic pattern of addiction, exercise addicts increase their amount of exercise to re-experience feelings of escapism or the natural high they had previously experienced with shorter periods of exercise. They report withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to exercise, and tend to go back to high levels of exercise after a period of abstinence or control. Three percent of gym users feel they cannot stop exercising.

While many reasons for exercising are shared among exercisers whether or not they are addicted -- health, fitness, weight management, body image and stress relief -- exercisers who are not addicted cite other reasons that exercise addicts do not share, such as social enjoyment, relaxation, and time alone.

People at risk for exercise addiction have difficulties in other areas in their lives that drive them to exercise to dangerous levels. They feel strongly that exercise is the most important thing in their life, and they use exercise as a way to express emotions including anger, anxiety and grief, and to deal with work and relationship stress. Some know that their excessive exercising has caused conflicts with their family members.

A central function of exercise addiction is the sense of control -– over mood, the body, the environment -- that exercise provides. It also provides a sense of structure. Ironically, as with other addictions, the attempt to exert control eventually leads to a loss of control over the ability to balance the activity with other priorities in life.

If You Think You May Be Addicted to Exercise

Exercise is a great way to manage stress and to address negative feelings. If your need for exercise is greater than your ability to manage your relationships and feelings, you many need more help, both to overcome your addiction and to find healthier ways of coping. Speak with your doctor about the best way to treat your addiction.

Sources

Adams, J. & Kirkby, R. “Excessive Exercise as an Addiction: A Review.” Addiction Research and Theory. 10:415-437. 2002.

Cox, R. & Orford, J. “A Qualitative Study of The Meaning of Exercise For People Who Could Be Labelled As ‘Addicted’ To Exercise – Can ‘Addiction’ Be Applied To High Frequency Exercising?” Addiction Research And Theory. 12:167–188. 2004.

Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. Second Edition. Chichester: Wiley. 2001.

Warner, R & Griffiths, M. “A Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Exercise Addiction: An Exploratory Study.” Int J Ment Health Addict 4: 13–26. 2006.

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