- Exercise Addiction Treatment Programs
- What Is Exercise Addiction
- Signs You Are Addicted to Exercising
- Help for Exercise Addicts
- Begin searching and quickly find what you need…
- What Is Exercise Addiction?
- Next Steps
- The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Substance Abuse
- Who Is at Risk for Exercise Addiction?
- Exercise Addiction Symptoms and Signs
- The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
- Common Causes of Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
- The Physical and Psychological Effects of Exercise Addiction
- Treating Exercise Addiction
- Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction
- 1. Your relationships are suffering
- 2. You’re constantly getting injured
- 3. You’re 100% invested in your sport and nothing else
- 4. You’ve become overly competitive and self-critical
- 5. You’re guilt-ridden if you miss a workout
- 6. You’re using exercise to moderate your emotions
- 7. You’re obsessed with your weight or physique
- 1. Create a healthy way to cope with stress and negative emotions
- 2. Set clear time boundaries with your training
- 3. Have a support system of non-fitness people in your life
- 4. Change your mindset
- Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction
- Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
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- 6 Proven Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
- 1. Stress Reduction
- 2. Better Sleep
- 3. Improved Mood
- 4. Increased Energy
- 5. Stronger Immune System
- 6. Prevent Relapse
- Exercise as a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse
- Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)
- 9 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction
- Exercise Addiction
- What is Exercise Addiction?
- Different Stages of Development
- What are the Physical Repercussions?
- Social and Psychological Side Effects
- Different Treatment Options
Exercise Addiction Treatment Programs
The increasing number of exercise addiction cases makes exercise addiction treatment a growing concern nowadays. A recent study shows that exercise dependence is prevalent among college-age adults and even higher among college-age women.
What Is Exercise Addiction
Exercise is among the most essential parts of keeping a healthy and sound body. In fact, it can help people fight off diseases, increase their body resistance, and stay in good shape. Besides its wide array of health benefits, exercise can become addictive as well for some people. Exercise addiction is an obsessive disorder that can impact a person’s physical, emotional, and psychological aspects.
Signs You Are Addicted to Exercising
Exercise addiction occurs when people feel the need to constantly go to the gym to exercise regardless of their knowledge that it can have damaging effects to their body. The addiction is normally accompanied by a number of motivations, such as mood fluctuations, evasiveness, a strong will to take charge, low self-image, and reduced capacity to successfully deal with day-to-day affairs. Exercise addiction is usually associated with anorexia nervosa, a type of eating disorder, and impacts about one percent of the general population.
This type of addiction becomes prevalent nowadays in view of the shift in exercise trends. The most obvious characteristic of the addiction is the compulsive need to exercise, which begins to affect every aspect of a person’s life. As with other types of addiction, exercise addiction is progressive and advances over time. When this happens, exercise becomes the central part of a person’s life, ultimately jeopardizing all the other aspects of his or her life, such as social life, work, family, friends, and other relationships. Exercise addicts experience feelings of increased nervousness and expectation, as well as an overwhelming desire to find exercise opportunities. After some time, nervousness, depression, seclusion, and sleep problems take over the addiction. As a result, the patient develops cagy, wary, and scheming behaviors as to his or her exercise activities.
Exercise addicts are observed to show obsessive exercise behaviors and overindulgence with exercise routines even at odd times and at an overly high intensity. This over exercise leads to body and muscle pains, because rigid exercise promotes the release of cortisol in answer to stress and increases testosterone discharge in men.
Often exercise addicts keep a note to record every workout they do and show aversion to anything that can distract them from their exercise activities. They don’t want to hear any negative comment about their exercise habits and would become irritable when encouraged to stop exercising.
Help for Exercise Addicts
Behavioral Addiction Treatment
Behavioral addiction treatment can be complicated because no illicit substance is involved. Instead, behavioral addiction is defined as any repetitive behavior that the person repeats over and over again without considering any negative consequences.
The first step in the treatment of exercise addiction is the acceptance on the part of the addict that he or she has an addiction problem. Next is the determination to stop the vicious cycle of the addiction for good. Patients would do well to keep distance from exercising for a minimum of one month. Specific activities can help patients overcome their need to do rigid workouts, some of which are yoga, meditation, and walking. Another good idea is to engage them in worthwhile activities, such as writing, painting, dancing, singing, gardening, etc., to turn their attention away from exercising. Combating exercise addiction involves striking a good balance between the mind and the body. When dealing with someone with this type of addiction, be aware that the patient will most likely go against the supplication to quit exercising. If the addiction has become a chronic condition, the assistance of a medical professional must be considered a priority.
If you suspect you are addicted to exercising or know someone with the same problem, it is a good idea to seek professional help as soon as possible. The addiction may possibly be a result of an underlying cause or disorder. Instead of making faulty judgments, find the answer straight from an exercise addiction treatment expert. Call our around-the-clock helpline now at 1-888-439-3435 Who Answers? for free advice or fill out our short contact form so that we can help you find the support you need.
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By: Cindy Coloma
Many of us prefer to start our day with exercise. Taking care of our health is important, and exercise undeniably plays a crucial role. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to be healthy. Whether you are controlling weight or improving mental health and mood, exercise has been shown to be a positive health benefit and safe for most people.1 But too much of a good thing can be harmful and addicting.
Individuals who struggle with disorders or addictions have been shown to be more susceptible to exercise addiction. Studies estimate that 15 to 20 percent of individuals who are addicted to exercise are also addicted to alcohol, nicotine or illicit drugs. They also suggest that up to 25% of people with one addiction have an additional addiction. For example, buying or shopping addiction has been identified as common among the exercise-addicted, while exercise addiction is common among individuals addicted to sex. Topping the list are those who have an eating disorder as well as a co-occurring exercise addiction.2
According to a report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, approximately 39 to 48 percent of people struggling with eating disorders also struggle with exercise addiction. Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many professionals are seeing a rise in the occurrence of people addicted to exercise.
What Is Exercise Addiction?
So how do you tell the difference between healthy exercise and a harmful addiction? Experts seem to agree on the following signs:
- Tolerance: Many people achieve positive effects from their exercise such as reduction in anxiety, a feeling of euphoria and increased self-esteem. Individuals struggling with exercise addiction find themselves needing more and more of the initial activity to achieve their desired results.
- Withdrawal: When a workout is cancelled or postponed, a person who is addicted may experience intense anxiety, fatigue or irritability.
- Habit of excess: A person struggling with exercise addiction my repeatedly exceed their planned limits for exercise. This might be promising to stop after an hour spent running, only to tack on an additional 30 minutes or more at the 50 minute mark.
- Lack of control: Many individuals who are experiencing exercise addiction find that the compulsion to exercise intrudes uncomfortably into their social and work lives. They cannot seem to stop thinking or planning their exercise environments and cannot keep their habits at manageable levels.
- Time: Planning, engaging in and recovering from exercise consumes a noticeably large portion of time, and the amount they exercise far exceeds what is recommended by fitness or medical professionals.
- Reductions in other activities: Social, career and recreational activities are deserted to prioritize fitness.
- Continuance: Despite warnings from medical professionals and trainers, a person who is struggling with exercise addiction persists in physical activity despite illness or injury, sometimes jeopardizing their own long-term health.3
Recognizing exercise addiction in your own life or in the life of another can be difficult. The escalation and evolution from a healthy habit to an addiction can span over months or years and take longer to admit and confront. It can stem from coping mechanisms, be a secondary or primary addiction and is a behavior-associated addiction. There is little research on the treatment.
Writer Lindsay Hall shared her journey into alcohol abuse, exercise addiction and exercise bulimia in her article, “Running Was My Drug of Choice. Here’s How I Finally Found Balance.” After entering treatment she writes, “Stripped of both running and alcohol, I had to relearn who I wanted to be without the aid of a drug – and yes, exercise was my drug. We live in a society where exercising and focusing on clean eating are the signs of a healthy (and sought after) lifestyle – and I was able to hide behind that for years.”4
Often the first goal for friends and therapists is to help people recognize addictive behavior and for extreme exercise to be reduced. A recent paper by the British Medical Journal recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as a possible solution.5 Treatment centers such as Center for Change offer therapies that can help.
Center for Change takes a comprehensive approach to treating a wide range of eating disorders, while understanding the connection between eating and exercise addiction.
1 “The Benefits of Physical Activity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov, June 4, 2015.
2 Friemuth, et al. “Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, October 21, 2011.
3 Schrieber, Katherine and Heather Hausenblas Ph.D. “Yes, You Can Get Addicted to Exercise.” Psychology Today, March 23, 2015.
4 Hall, Lindsey. “Running Was My Drug of Choice. Here’s How I Finally Found Balance.” Greatist.com, February 17, 2015.
5 Howard, Jacqueline. “When Exercise Shifts From a Healthy Habit to an Unhealthy Addiction.” Cnn.com, May 9, 2017.
An individual with exercise addiction demonstrates an unhealthy preoccupation with fitness goals and working out. It can be difficult to believe someone who is obsessed with fitness could be addicted, but individuals with exercise addiction share behavioral and psychological traits with those who are addicted to substances such as alcohol. These include continuing the destructive behavior despite severe consequences, hiding or lying about exercise, and feeling unable to control how much or when exercise occurs.
Many individuals who exercise obsessively report feeling high and powerful. This happens because exercise releases endorphins and dopamine that lead to feeling happy and relaxed — feelings that dissipate when exercise stops. Unless the individual trains again, the same intensity of those feelings will not return. Although in most cases this is a desirable response to working out, individuals with exercise addiction continue to train even when injuries, relationship problems and dangerous weather dictate slowing down is the appropriate response. Exercise addiction can also occur alongside eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.
The effects of exercise addiction can be deadly, especially if exercise addiction occurs alongside an eating disorder. A nutrient-poor diet, too-rapid weight loss and deteriorating mental health can lead to life-threatening problems such as heart failure, organ failure or suicide. Although exercise addiction may begin with innocent intentions, it can result in deadly effects — but help is available.
The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Substance Abuse
Exercise addiction symptoms resemble the side effects felt by an individual with a substance abuse problem. Feeling high after working out is an extremely common side effect, and some scientists theorize the euphoria caused by exercise is similar to the rush felt by opiate addicts. Suffering from depression or anxiety if too much time passes without a workout is also extremely common. An exercise addict might train for far longer than the current 30-minute daily recommendation — instead, intense workouts lasting 2 or 3 hours might be the norm. This significant time commitment may lead to problems in other areas of the individual’s life.
If someone you care about is addicted to exercise, you have already noticed a failure to meet certain commitments or obligations. In the exercise addict’s life, working out is the most important thing. Unlike healthy individuals, who work exercise into their daily routine, an individual with exercise addiction plans working out first and adapts everything else to meet that schedule — including work, spending time with family and friends, and other personal obligations. Workout intensity might mean your loved one also has to spend a lot of time preparing for and recovering from exercise, which leaves little time for other activities. Attempts to cut back don’t work, because the desire to exercise is too strong.
Who Is at Risk for Exercise Addiction?
Anyone can develop an addiction to exercise, but certain groups may be more likely to develop a problem. An individual with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa may be likely to obsessively exercise to support caloric restriction goals. Also, those who have extreme weight loss goals — particularly those who suffer from obesity — are at risk. Individuals who were once teased for weight or appearance are at risk, as are those who were once addicted to alcohol or drugs. Using exercise as a “healthy” substitute for using sometimes backfires.
Orthorexia is also common in individuals with exercise addiction. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with nutrition and exercise, and it frequently results in injuries, exhaustion, anxiety, isolation, depression and changes in menstruation. An individual with orthorexia grows obsessed with healthy eating habits and may refuse to eat entire food groups, or foods that contain additives. These individuals go to extremes to assure certain foods are never consumed, and they may feel superior to those who opt for less-rigid dietary choices.
“Type A” or perfectionistic individuals are also at risk of developing an exercise addiction.
Exercise Addiction Symptoms and Signs
At first, an individual with exercise addiction might appear to be the picture of health. Lean limbs and strong muscles, regular participation in endurance races and other popular fitness events, and an unrelenting commitment to working out are fitness goals many healthy individuals aspire to. Individuals with exercise addiction take their goals too far, however — and like a person with a substance abuse problem, continue to engage in unhealthy activities even when the signs to stop are clear.
An individual with exercise addiction might:
- Get hooked on the number of compliments received as well as the endorphin rush felt while working out. The only way for the exercise addict to feel good is to work out, and regaining that rush must happen no matter what.
- Participate in multiple fitness classes or workouts per day. The intoxicating effects of working out encourage the individual to exercise for hours a day.
- Work out even after sustaining an injury. Overtraining is a serious problem for all athletes, but especially for those with exercise addiction. When a healthy person who exercises regularly injures a muscle or a bone, he will stop working out until he has healed. When an individual with exercise addiction sustains an injury, he continues to exercise anyway — thus worsening the problem.
- Exercise even when working out takes too much time away from important obligations. When exercise interferes with personal and professional obligations — and despite warnings to cut back, continues anyway — exercise addiction could be a problem.
- Feel exhausted instead of strong after working out, and depressed or anxious when working out isn’t possible. Individuals who work out obsessively frequently feel exhaustion because their muscles have not been allowed to recover. Skipping a workout for a day or two is normal, and it can even help the body, because muscles gain strength while at rest. When irritability and depressive symptoms occur after a short time that could be a sign of exercise addiction.
- Be obsessed with perceived perfection. An individual who uses exercise to cope with an obsession with appearance and perfection needs treatment. Although exercise is a proven mood booster, those who use it to battle low self-esteem are at risk of becoming dependent.
- Ignore friends and favorite activities to focus on working out. Individuals with exercise addiction dislike skipping working out and prefer to train alone. They express frustration or guilt when their routines are altered or skipped. They may also express dissatisfaction with their workouts, even if their workouts are already intense.
- Suffer obvious physical problems. Exercise addicts are at high risk of overtraining, which reduces the ability to perform. In addition to fatigue, an individual with exercise addiction will be sore and stiff nearly constantly. An inability to concentrate — especially if combined with an eating disorder — is also common. Muscle wasting and adrenal exhaustion are serious consequences of exercise addiction.
If you are concerned you or someone you love is addicted to exercise, you may be able to further identify the problem by keeping a journal. Write it down every time exercise occurs, including the type and length of exercise. If you observe possible eating disorder symptoms, record that also. These may include skipped meals, dietary supplements, obsessive recording of caloric intake, spending a lot of time in the bathroom, oral health problems and extreme weight loss.
The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
There is a strong relationship between exercise addiction and eating disorders. An individual who has an eating disorder demonstrates unhealthy attitudes about food and weight, has unrealistic standards and is extremely self-critical. Food, weight and caloric intake consume other thoughts. This unhealthy focus disrupts normal bodily functions and habits, and in serious cases can end in death. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders cause more fatalities than every other type of mental health condition. An individual with an eating disorder may adopt an obsessive exercise routine to support extreme weight loss goals.
Although women are more likely than men to develop an eating disorder, men are less likely to get help. The number of men with eating disorders is also rising. Adolescents are extremely susceptible to eating disorders, but it may develop in men and women of all ages.
There are several types of eating disorders that may occur alongside exercise addiction. They include:
- Anorexia nervosa. An individual with anorexia may starve himself by strictly limiting caloric intake because of a distorted body image. Vomiting, also called purging, may accompany eating. The anorectic may try to lose weight in a short period of time with diet pills, stimulants or fad diets. Individuals with anorexia often use intense exercise as a way to control weight and reduce the caloric effects of eating.
- Bulimia. Bulimia is a disorder typified by consuming large amounts of food at one time. Individuals with bulimia often vomit or purge after eating to reduce caloric intake. In addition to purging, other methods of calorie restriction include the use of diuretics or water pills, fasting and excessive exercise. If vomiting is the method of choice, a trip to the dentist may alert a concerned parent that bulimia is possible. That’s because vomit wears away at tooth enamel and can cause gum disease.
- Binge eating disorder. A diagnosis of binge eating disorder means uncontrolled eating not followed by purging. Strong feelings of shame accompany binge eating disorder, and a struggling person may alternate binges with fasting or fad dieting.
- Orthorexia. An individual with this avoidant disorder refuses to eat certain foods, food groups or additives. For example, an individual with orthorexia might refuse to eat carbohydrates. This obsession with healthy eating is closely linked with exercise addiction. Because orthorexia leads to bone density loss and heart problems, a coexisting exercise addiction can cause serious injury at best and death at worst.
Common Causes of Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
Exercise addiction and eating disorders are complex diseases that cause a variety of serious physical and psychological health problems. The roots of these disorders live far deeper than concerns over appearance. The causes for each disorder remain unclear, but researchers agree a variety of factors contribute to exercise addiction and eating disorders. These factors include physical, psychological, social and cultural problems.
Each individual has their own reasons why exercise addiction and/or an eating disorder became a problem. Common causes of exercise addiction and eating disorders include:
- Low self-esteem. Individuals with exercise addiction enjoy observing measurable progress in terms of size, strength or speed. These feelings are reinforced when others make positive comments on changes in appearance.
- Body image disorder. What begins as a healthy desire to achieve clear fitness goals may lead to exercise addiction if symptoms of body image disorder exist. When an individual believes he is fat when weight is not a problem, he may suffer from a distorted self image.
- A craving for endorphins. During intense exercise, the body releases endorphins. Endorphins cause euphoric feelings during exercise, excitement and sexual activity. This euphoric feeling is similar to what opiate drug users experience when high, according to ProjectKnow.com. Also like substance abuse, getting that euphoric feeling back requires exercising longer and harder.
- Depression and anxiety. Exercise is a proven mood booster and an individual with exercise addiction may work out obsessively to self-treat uncomfortable symptoms. When working out isn’t possible, feelings of anxiety, sadness and guilt become overwhelming.
The Physical and Psychological Effects of Exercise Addiction
The physical and psychological effects of exercise addiction can be profound. They may include:
- Eating disorders.
- Damage to joints and muscles that limit the capacity for movement.
- Stress fractures and severe bone loss. Bone loss can be a serious problem, particularly for older women, but it can also increase the risk of injuries.
- Scarring of the heart muscle. Scarring can cause abnormal function and heart failure. Endurance athletes are more likely to suffer heart muscle scarring.
- Problems with menstruation.
- Cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortion helps an individual addicted to exercise justify his workout routine. Habits may include superstitious thinking, discounting, black and white thinking, over-generalization, and associating extreme exercise habits with long-term happiness.
Treating Exercise Addiction
The answer to exercise addiction is more complex than cutting back on working out. To achieve a better balance while retaining a healthy commitment to fitness, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary.
Programs that address the physical damage caused by overtraining and the psychological impact of addiction are a good place to start. In these programs, the struggling individual will take time off from exercise to allow injuries to heal. He will also practice sound dietary habits. Through psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, he will identify the root causes of the addiction, and learn to cope. He will also identify triggers that precede exercise, and figure out how to manage those frustrations and impulses with life-affirming practices. If a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety exists, he or she will receive treatment for that as well. This treatment may include psychotherapy, a pharmacological remedy or both.
Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction
Photo: jacoblund / Getty Images
Gisela Bouvier was in high school when she discovered the “magic” of dieting. “I started to lose weight and people started to notice and compliment me-which I loved,” she says. “Shortly after I started restricting , I signed up for a membership at my local gym.”
Working out quickly became an obsession says Bouvier, who majored in dietetics and nutrition in college and became a registered dietitian nutritionist at a local hospital after graduation. After nine-hour work days, she would spend two and a half to three hours exercising. If something got in the way of completing her very specific workout routine, she says her mood would go haywire.
“If I didn’t exercise, my anxiety would be through the roof,” she says. “I would compensate by restricting my meals more or exercising longer the next day. When my friends and family would try to make plans with me, I would cancel or postpone just to ensure I worked out.”
Bouvier knew that she had a problem. “Fearing food and feeling the obligation to overexercise was not healthy and was emotionally, physically, and mentally draining,” she says.
Eventually, her compulsions couldn’t be masked as healthy habits any longer. Bouvier was suffering from exercise addiction. The condition is defined as excessive physical activity that results in physical, social, and psychological issues, says Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., a professor in the department of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida, and coauthor of The Truth About Exercise Addiction.
First, know that exercise addiction is not extremely common, affecting less than 1 percent of the population, says Hausenblas. “From a health standpoint, we think more exercise is always better. But there is that tipping point where more exercise can become detrimental.”
It’s not necessarily the quantity of exercise someone does that is the issue. Putting in long hours training for a marathon or doing two-a-day workout classes doesn’t automatically constitute an addiction, says Hausenblas. Instead, someone who is addicted to exercise will become anxious or depressed when they are unable to work out, she says. They will cancel social obligations, schedule their life around their workouts, or work out at inappropriate times and places if need be (like doing pull-ups in an airport bathroom). If they become injured, they are likely to “push through” the pain against doctor’s orders, because the thought of taking time off to heal is unbearable.
Exercise addiction can be divided into types, according to research. A primary exercise addiction “occurs in the absence of an eating disorder”-so weight loss is not a major concern. Conversely, someone who suffers from secondary exercise addiction also has an eating disorder. (Related: Orthorexia Is the Eating Disorder You’ve Never Heard Of)
Exercise Addiction Treatment
“Compulsive exercising is another way to really purge calories, and it’s often wrapped up into an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia,” says Amy Edelstein, L.C.S.W., site director of the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder recovery center in New York. She says that both exercise addiction and secondary eating disorders can be a way to manage underlying distressing behaviors or events.
The appropriate treatment for exercise addiction depends on whether the addiction is primary or secondary. Hausenblas says that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be useful for some people, helping to reframe thinking about exercise. In cases of secondary exercise addiction, treatment for the concurrent eating disorder is crucial.
Treatment focus should be on “giving people healthy coping skills so they understand what the function of these behaviors are,” says Edelstein.
For Bouvier, she ultimately chose a 10-week inpatient treatment at an eating disorder treatment center, followed by 12 weeks of intensive outpatient treatment, in an effort to heal from her exercise addiction. “It was the longest six months of my entire life, but it gave me the tools to finally find food freedom and joyful and intuitive movement,” she says. (Related: Why You Should Give Up Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)
Signs of Exercise Addiction
From a distance, someone with an exercise addiction may just appear to be diligent about their health. Exercise is a healthy habit, and staying active is widely encouraged. For someone with a problem, they might even think society and the medical community are actually encouraging their harmful behavior.
Melinda Parrish, a plus-size model who also served in the military, struggled with exercise addiction and an eating disorder for 11 years. “My need to exercise as a compensatory behavior for my eating was such that it interfered with my social life, my studies, and my health,” she says. “I was actually sick, but surrounded by a culture that was validating my unhealthy behavior.”
Parrish, now 33, injured her back by overexercising and kept working out despite her extreme pain. She was on active duty in the military and an NCAA Division I athlete on the United States Naval Academy rowing team-staying active was not just encouraged, but expected. Eventually, she required two different back surgeries as a result of her injury and was honorably medically discharged from the Navy. (Related: Exercises to Relieve Your Back Pain)
“I think it’s really hard to recover completely in a culture like ours that encourages diet, exercise, and any behavior designed to reduce our weight under the mantle of health,” says Parrish. “But when your behavior is actually causing self-harm, it’s not healthy. It’s very unhealthy. Yet, you’ll find validation all over the place for treating your body so poorly. I can’t tell you how many people were praising me for continuously pushing my body to extremes in exercise. Inside, I was suffering and wanted someone to tell me to stop.”
Through conversations with her husband, Parrish says she began to understand that her behavior was unhealthy. “He was vulnerable in sharing his concern, and that created the space for me to share what I was going through, and over time that led us to a diagnosis and the beginning of recovery,” she says.
Injuries from overexercise are not uncommon in people who are addicted to exercise, says Bryant Walrod, M.D., a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Too much exercise can cause issues like stress fractures and tendinitis. Plus, “you can train so hard that your performance actually gets worse,” he says.
Exercise Addiction Recovery
It is possible to recover from an exercise addiction and maintain a nonaddictive relationship with exercise. Bouvier, who now runs B Nutrition & Wellness, aimed at helping people create positive relationships with food and exercise, didn’t stop exercising entirely-but she now focuses on intuitive movement.
“Exercise is no longer done because I ‘need to burn calories,'” she says. “Rather, I exercise because I enjoy it. I also change my exercise routine based on what my body needs. There are days I want an intense workout with heavy lifting, and there are days I do yoga or simply rest. My physical activity is just as intuitive as my nourishment.” (Related: 7 Signs You Seriously Need a Rest Day)
But recovery isn’t always linear. Parrish admits that she still struggles with some exercise addiction tendencies or thoughts, and Bouvier still regularly uses different tools to ensure she doesn’t fall back into addictive behaviors. “It’s important that I give myself time blocks when I am at the gym,” says Bouvier. “I know that by a certain time I need to be done to be able to get back to work, pick up my daughter, or complete other tasks in my day. Time-blocking is important to me for exercise because it ensures I give myself time to be active but also ensures that I stay focused to not overdo it.”
Both Bouvier and Parrish say that the support of their family and loved ones throughout their recovery has been incredibly important. If you know someone who you suspect is addicted to exercise, Edelstein recommends that you address the issue head-on. “If you have an inkling that someone you love is struggling, I would bring it to them in a nonjudgmental, respectful way,” she says. Express your worries, show that you are there for them, and offer to help them get help. If they aren’t receptive to your comments, let them know you’re still here for them whenever they might need you.
- By By Nina Bahadur
After a huge lifting session, marathon run, or mountain-scaling bike ride, you’ve got a cocktail of chemical endorphins flooding your body—and it’s easy to get hooked. But when your commitment to be faster, stronger, and better goes a bit too far—the theoretical hooks bite deeper—you can cross the fine line between being committed and becoming addicted.
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, exercise addiction happens. “Exercise addiction is engaging in an activity—lifting, running, training for a triathlon—that starts off pleasurable, then shifts to become compulsive and noticeably interferes with ordinary life responsibilities,” says Gloria Petruzzelli, a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist at California State University’s student health and counseling services. “Athletes may not be aware their behavior is out of control because, with social media and other forums, it’s easy to find someone else or a group to justify our extreme behavior,” she explains.
It’s easy to put an intense regimen off as your passion and dedication to an end goal—and in most cases it probably is. But if you exhibit these symptoms below, it’s important to take a step back, evaluate where you stand honestly, and ask yourself whether that grueling training regimen might actually be counterproductive. Overtraining can happen, and if there’s one way to stall your progress, it’s pushing your mind, body, and spirit too far. Here are 9 indicators you might be addicted to working out.
Real talk: If you think you or someone you know has an addiction, please see a medical or mental health professional.
1. Your relationships are suffering
“It’s very unhealthy when you find yourself spending an excessive amount of time every day—sacrificing family or social get-togethers—to squeeze in the extra hour, extra set, or extra interval,” Petruzzelli says. Your life needs balance, and your mind and body need a reprieve from such an arduous effort. Rigid adherence to a strict, repetitive exercise routine with no flexibility to change when you workout is a major red flag, she adds. (It’s also counterproductive—you should be switching up your routine fairly regularly to avoid plateauing.)
2. You’re constantly getting injured
Too much training puts a huge strain on your body, running all your systems down, which can lead to chronic illness and/or injury. “Addicted athletes are the ones that typically have some aliment constantly going on,” Petruzzelli says. Be honest with yourself: Are you sacrificing the time it would take to recover in favor of furthering your training time? If every set is a dangerous dance with a potential injury, then step back before you do some major damage and live to lift another day.
3. You’re 100% invested in your sport and nothing else
“When all your time, social interactions, resources, and money are about one sport (given that you’re not a professional), and you have no other hobbies or interests, I’d recommend getting an evaluation from a mental health professional,” Petruzzelli suggests. Sure, triathlons are inherently expensive; you could spend thousands of dollars on a wetsuit, high-level bike, and the accompanying gear. You could also spend hours every day training, since it’s a colossal undertaking. But that doesn’t mean you should be on either of these extremes. If you can be realistic, compromise, or moderate this goal with other aspects of your life, you could be taking things too far.
4. You’ve become overly competitive and self-critical
“Many dedicated athletes or fitness buffs are self-proclaimed Type-A personalities,” Petruzzelli says. This is by no means a bad thing, but type-A personalities respond to stress differently. “Specifically, under extreme stress, they may strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments, and exhibit significant life imbalances,” Petruzzelli explains. If you find you’re easily wound up, have poor emotional management, and are in a constant struggle against the clock or a personal best, you could be erring into the extreme of exercise addiction.
“Every personality has positive and negative aspects, but having a type-A personality may make you more vulnerable to stress or unhealthy coping behaviors that contribute to training addiction,” Petruzzelli explains.
5. You’re guilt-ridden if you miss a workout
Men and women who become compulsive with exercise suffer from extreme guilt when they’re unable to train, Petruzzelli says. They’re also prone to “making up for” a missed session by overtraining and overloading their bodies. If you beat yourself up or purposefully dodge social events that might clash with your workout, it’s time to reevaluate.
6. You’re using exercise to moderate your emotions
Yes, everyone clings to the feeling of a runner’s high (same goes for the buzz you feel after spin, rock climbing, and every other physical pursuit). And it’s only natural to take your frustration from work or your social life out on a particularly grueling or intense workout. But if you rely on exercise to elicit positive feelings (happiness, contentment) and alleviate negative emotions (anger, extreme sadness) on a daily basis, you could be on a dangerous path—especially if you’re also not enjoying the exercise and only feel relief with the accomplishment, Petruzzelli says.
7. You’re obsessed with your weight or physique
A desire to change your weight or physique is often what spurs the desire to exercise. But if you’re exercising solely to burn calories or “earn” your meal—or you engage in compensatory exercise because you ate too much earlier or the day before—that’s a sign of obsessive behavior, Petruzzelli says. Some men even suffer from body dysmorphic disorder—a condition where you have a severely distorted perception of your weight and shape. It’s incredibly dangerous for your mental and physical health if you’re never satisfied with your performance, the way your body looks, or how you’re progressing.
“Having a healthy balance between your everyday life and your training can make you a better athlete and person,” Petruzzelli says.
Here are 4 ways to do just that:
1. Create a healthy way to cope with stress and negative emotions
Other than with training! This is the number-one way to form any type of equilibrium in your life. No one thing is a cure-all for emotions and life stress.
2. Set clear time boundaries with your training
Create a realistic regimen with a professional trainer. Whatever your training plan says to do, make sure you “stick to those time boundaries prescribed intervals, sets, miles, time, etc.,” Petruzzelli says.
3. Have a support system of non-fitness people in your life
“We all need people outside of our circles to help us see what we may not be able to,” Petruzzelli says. “Many professional athletes have their own ‘team’ that is not associated with their sport for this reason,” she adds. Touch base with people who give you a good reality check and honest feedback.
4. Change your mindset
The beauty of having balance is to be able to experience the positive effects of our sport/fitness activities and create possibilities of what we can do with our minds and bodies. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen mindfulness teacher, says: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” Another of his teachings: “We have more possibilities available to us in each moment than we realize.”
Addiction mindset pulls our attention away from experiencing other things in life that can bring us excitement. Find balance and trust that there will be more to life than just training.
If you want to do a quick self-assessment to check in where you stand on the spectrum, take “The Compulsive Exercise Test.”
One more time: Meet with a professional if you think you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise.
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Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction
Running is unconditionally great for the body, the soul, and the mind, right? Almost, but not quite.
Almost anything harm when taken to an extreme — even the most benign or beneficial activities.
Even the sacred domain of exercise is not protected from this universal truth. When a commitment to exercise crosses the line to dependency and compulsion, it can create physical, social, and psychological havoc for those among us who appear outwardly to be the very fittest. Runners are particularly vulnerable.
A “positive addiction” is a healthy adaptation to the barriers to exercise in life, since commitments to work, family, and other healthy pursuits must compete for time to work out. Sometimes, however, the line between commitment and compulsion is crossed.
Richard Benyo, writing on the subject of exercise addiction for the Road Runners Club of America, says that there is a negative side to exercise that gradually, insidiously, can take over the positive.
“In an ironic way, nature balances the situation when the thing obsessed turns on and bites the obsessor.”
Exercise addiction is not just another term for overtraining syndrome. Healthy athletes training for peak performance and competition can suffer overtraining symptoms, which are the short-term result of too little rest and recovery.
Exercise addiction, on the other hand, is a chronic loss of perspective of the role of exercise in a full life. A healthy athlete and an exercise addict may share similar levels of training volume — the difference is in the attitude.
An addicted individual isn’t able to see value in unrelated activities and pursues his sport even when it is against his best interest.
The exercise addict has lost his balance: Exercise has become overvalued compared to elements widely recognized as giving meaning in a full life — work, friends, family, community involvement — in short, the fruits of our humanity.
When emotional connections are passed up in favor of additional hours of training; when injury, illness and fatigue don’t preempt a workout; when all free time is consumed by training — exercise addiction is the diagnosis.
Warning lights for addiction include withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and depression that appear when circumstances prevent you from working out.
To the addict, there is no exception to the rule “the more the better.” More training, more hours, more miles, more intensity: more is absolutely always better. Anything that interferes with the lust for more exercise is resented.
The paradox inherent in exercise addiction is the blurred boundary between what is healthy, admirable and desirable, and behavior that is over the edge and dependent. As runners and fitness enthusiasts, we value individuals who seem to epitomize the true athlete who achieves success by virtue of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work.
Peak fitness and excellence, which we aspire to achieve with our own running, require a dogged commitment to training despite circumstances and moods that would conspire against your resolve. Once we accomplish a training routine and the necessary commitment, isn’t it normal to feel irritable and a little depressed when we miss our run?
Part of the paradox for the exercise-dependent is that levels of achievement are often beneath what is expected for the obviously high level of commitment. Performance suffers when value is placed only on working out.
The addict answers poor performance with running more and resting less. A healthy athlete looks at the big picture and adjusts training programs allowing for rest and recovery among all the training variables.
Who is at risk?
Experts have argued as to whether exercise addiction is linked to the highly touted “runner’s high,” due in part to the release of beta-endorphins during and after intense exercise. Most agree though, that exercise addiction is the result of psychological factors.
“Intense, high-achieving perfectionist individuals are particularly vulnerable to this addiction,” says psychologist Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D.
In the case of exercise addiction, the underlying psychological causes are usually linked by low self-esteem, which finds gratification in the gains made by training.
“Unfortunately,” Stoliaroff warns, “denial is a frequent component of any addictive process.”
Don’t run away
If you see a little too much of yourself in these paragraphs, don’t run the other direction. Find a good counselor or someone else whose opinion you trust and discuss the possibility of exercise addiction.
As you work with a counselor, change the emphasis of your exercise from “more is better,” to quality. Objective progress can be made by planning your workouts with an experienced trainer on a weekly basis, with rest and recovery given the emphasis they deserve in a well-balanced training program.
Write down a seven-day schedule, planning mileage, intensity, rest, and any cross-training activities with specific, reasonable goals relative to your skills. Working with a trainer, set outside limits for number of workout hours in any given week.
Never work out just because you found an extra hour or two in your day. Train only to the extent that you’ve planned. If you find extra time, spend it with a friend, a book, a movie, call your mother. Set goals in other aspects of your life besides training. Learn something new — gourmet cooking, sailing, knitting.
Become a mentor to someone in your community who needs you. If you miss a day, scratch it off your schedule. Never make up a missed workout by doubling up the next day.
The exercise-addicted runner will almost always suffer the consequences of his addiction. It is not a coincidence that few exercise addicts can be lifetime runners.
As Benyo said, “the obsession bites back” in the form of chronic injuries, impaired relationships and other problems. The exercise-obsessed runner may one day complain that running ruined his life, but it was running out of balance that was the ruin.
Remember that working out should always have an element of play. If working out loses all aspects of fun, something has gone wrong. The most competitive professional athletes still love their sport, love to run because it gives pleasure, and not because it has become a compulsive need.
Renowned running writer Dr. George Sheehan put it this way: “The things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun — not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is.”
Sheehan ran right to the end of his life. He could not separate his identity from his running. Running and being were synonymous. As a result he achieved great things as a runner. Running didn’t subtract from the rest of his life, it added. He was also the father of 12, a doctor, prolific writer, philosopher and thinker. He found balance. Look for balance. Running enhances life. It can’t stand alone.
Have you gone over the edge?
Rate yourself as honestly as you can below with the following checklist:
If you have checked three or more of these items, you may be losing your perspective on running and working out. Exercise is healthy as long as it is in balance with a full life. Speak with a mental health professional or your doctor for help.
(Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase, MD, developed this checklist.)
Volume 18, Number 6, Running & FitNews
The American Running Association
Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
You Don’t Have to Become a Fitness Fanatic to See the Benefits
~Green-In-MI, SMART Recovery Online Member
SMARTies who participate in SMART Recovery Online (SROL) will sooner or later hear me sing the praises of exercise as an integral part of recovery. For me, exercise is a valuable Vitally Absorbing Creative Interest (VACI) as well as something that provides a host of side benefits. Exercise offers many benefits during the recovery process and I want to take a few minutes to talk about how it can be a part of your recovery.
It doesn’t have to be complicated: It’s important to recognize that working out can take many forms, from something as simple and low impact as a walk, to training for a marathon or taking up competitive power lifting. In this context low impact does not mean less effective. Extensive research shows that even walking for 30 minutes a day several days a week can reap benefits. Obviously if you want to meet specific goals like increased aerobic capacity or running a local 5K race you need to train appropriately, but throughout this blog post when I talk about working out or fitness I really mean getting out and moving – whatever you can do with your abilities and motivation.
Exercise can help provide structure to your days: This can take several forms including things like a set workout plan or signing up for classes like yoga or spinning at the local gym. I’ve found it very effective to have a set workout plan in place that encourages me to think “hey, I can’t drink tonight; I have to get up and run tomorrow morning”. Or if you’re not a morning person, “hey, I can’t drink tonight; I need to go to my yoga class”.
A commitment to a regular workout or other exercise regime also takes up time: This is part of the thinking behind a VACI – what are you going to do with all this extra time that you used to spend thinking about, acquiring, using, and recovering from using your drug of choice? Many people in early addiction recovery find they suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and no idea what to do with it. Working out, in whatever form, can fill some of this time. Even one aerobics class per week plus a couple of workouts on your own can take up several hours including time to get ready to work out and get cleaned up after. For more ideas of how to incorporate exercise into your life, SROL members have compiled a list of possible activities for people to consider.
Exercise adds another item to the Cost Benefit Analysis: The Cost Benefit Analysis tool is used to weigh the short and long term effects of an addictive behavior. In the short term, it’s easy to think of exercise as a benefit of not using because of the other benefits I’m talking about in this post. You’re not using and instead you’re working out and getting healthy. The flip side of the coin is that using will likely prevent you from working out. This can also be effective in the longer term if you set fitness based goals like a backpacking trip several months away. A cost of using is putting that backpacking trip at risk.
Exercise can provide a general positive feeling: If you’re anything like I was, you’ve been doing very bad things to your body so it may be a while before you start to enjoy working out. It’s going to take time to heal your body and shift your mental frame of reference. When I started running I did not enjoy it in the slightest, but now I can think of no better way to start the day than getting out for an hour long run. How long will this take? Like a lot of recovery issues (like frequency or intensity of urges) it will depend on the individual. In the meantime, try and pick exercises you are likely to enjoy from the start, like walking the dog or hiking. As your body recovers and you gain fitness you’ll find a lot of doors open up to you, broadening the types of activities you can enjoy.
Exercise will help heal your body and your brain: Research clearly shows that exercise helps your body, whether you’re in recovery or not. Improved long term fitness helps with cardio-vascular health and diabetes, lowers the risk of some types of cancers, stimulates the immune system, and can even help alleviate depression symptoms. Further research shows that exercise can increase the amount of new nerve connections in the brain, which will help your brain heal from the harm your drug of choice has been causing. As the body and mind continue to return to a more normal state many people in recovery find exercise also helps restore a normal sleep schedule.
I hear many, many people bemoan the idea that they’re too out of shape, they lack the time, or they have some physical limitation like an old injury that keeps them from exercising. I truly believe that there is something everyone can do. You just need to figure out what you can do and get started. And yes, getting started can be a difficult step.
The bottom line is that exercise can be a valuable part of the recovery process for a number of reasons, and you don’t have to become a fitness fanatic to see the benefits of exercise. Just take those first steps and get out there and move.
About the author: Green-In-MI is a Boston Marathon qualifier and finisher as well as an Ironman finisher. He has also raced numerous other marathons, half marathons, and other triathlons. Fitness is his VACI and has been an integral part of his progress towards a healthy lifestyle that includes abstinence from alcohol. His current goals are shaving two hours off his Ironman finishing time and running a sub-3 hr marathon.
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6 Proven Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
36 Shares By The Recovery Village Updated on01/17/20
When you use drugs and alcohol in excess, your body and mind are both impacted. Addiction changes your body chemistry. Once substances are removed, you may be left feeling anxious, depressed and sensitive to some of life’s major stressors.
The good news is that physical activity can help shift the tide on those negative emotions and bring you some positive results. Whether you are new in addiction recovery or have been away from harmful substances for many years, there are several proven benefits to getting regular exercise.
1. Stress Reduction
Stress can be a particular problem in addiction recovery and can lead to relapse if not properly managed. One of the ways that you can reduce and control stress is through exercise. Physical activity releases feel-good endorphins in the brain and improves circulation, both of which help with stress.
2. Better Sleep
Having problems with sleep is not uncommon in recovery. In fact, many people begin using alcohol or drugs believing that these substances would help them get the rest they needed. Regular exercise can improve both your quality and quantity of sleep.
3. Improved Mood
Mood changes can be associated with addiction recovery, and you can help your body adjust to its new circumstances by teaching it to naturally produce those feel-good chemicals that were sought artificially in drugs. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, providing feelings of happiness and well being. According to the Mayo Clinic, just 30 minutes of exercise per day is enough to affect a positive change in mood.
Exercise in addiction recovery can improve mood and prevent relapse.
4. Increased Energy
You may be expending plenty of energy when you run, swim, or ride a bicycle, but you will also receive energy in exchange for your efforts. If recovery has left you feeling tired and lethargic at times, regular exercise is one of the ways that you can put some spring back in your step.
5. Stronger Immune System
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health reports that getting regular exercise helps protect your body from certain serious conditions such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, depression, diabetes and osteoporosis.
6. Prevent Relapse
Perhaps the greatest incentive to get regular exercise in addiction recovery is that regular movement can help prevent a return to alcohol or drug use. A collection of studies suggest that regular exercise can increase the abstinence rate for substance use by 95 percent. These studies also found that exercise can help manage stress, depression and anxiety, which can all contribute to substance use.
Exercise as a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse
While it cannot be the sole treatment, there are studies that suggest regular exercise is a potential treatment for drug abuse. Exercise, when combined with other proven forms of addiction treatment, has been shown to produce protective effects in addiction recovery tied to the neurobiological and behavioral outcomes of physical activity.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, the addiction recovery programs at The Recovery Village combine traditional and holistic therapies to create a comprehensive addiction treatment program. Our addiction experts can help you break free from harmful substances and learn a new way to live. Contact us now to find out more about treatment options.
Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)
- Principles of Effective Treatment
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Why do drug-addicted persons keep using drugs?
- What is drug addiction treatment?
- How effective is drug addiction treatment?
- Is drug addiction treatment worth its cost?
- How long does drug addiction treatment usually last?
- What helps people stay in treatment?
- How do we get more substance-abusing people into treatment?
- How can family and friends make a difference in the life of someone needing treatment?
- Where can family members go for information on treatment options?
- How can the workplace play a role in substance abuse treatment?
- What role can the criminal justice system play in addressing drug addiction?
- What are the unique needs of women with substance use disorders?
- What are the unique needs of pregnant women with substance use disorders?
- What are the unique needs of adolescents with substance use disorders?
- Are there specific drug addiction treatments for older adults?
- Can a person become addicted to medications prescribed by a doctor?
- Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?
- How do other mental disorders coexisting with drug addiction affect drug addiction treatment?
- Is the use of medications like methadone and buprenorphine simply replacing one addiction with another?
- Where do 12-step or self-help programs fit into drug addiction treatment?
- Can exercise play a role in the treatment process?
- How does drug addiction treatment help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C (HCV), and other infectious diseases?
- Drug Addiction Treatment in the United States
- Evidence-Based Approaches to Drug Addiction Treatment
9 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction
Have you ever heard the saying, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing?”
When used moderately to maintain physical and mental health, or when used in conjunction with an appropriate amount of nourishment, exercise has a whole host of incredible benefits.
But, in the case of exercise, too much of a good thing can yield negative consequences.
Exercise addiction is something that impacts thousands of people and can be conceptualized like other process and substance addictions. It’s not a formal clinical diagnosis, but rather a behavioral condition often rooted within other issues — such as distorted body image or eating disorders.
So how much exercise is too much exercise? That can be difficult to answer without knowing the unique circumstances surrounding each individual, but here are some universal signs to look out for:
- Missing a workout makes you irritable, anxious or depressed. For instance, if you notice yourself or someone you know becoming clearly agitated or uncomfortable after missing a workout, even after a long string of consecutive days of exercising, it could be a warning sign.
- You work out when sick, injured or exhausted. It is important to listen to your body’s cues. Those who have an addiction to exercise push themselves through a pulled muscle, the flu or even a stress fracture, failing to rest even when rest is clearly needed.
- Exercise becomes a way to escape. The primary goal is no longer balancing the mind or reducing stress. Exercise becomes a way to withdraw from certain life situations and the emotions that are brought up because of them. Clinical interventions, such as talk therapy and expressive therapy, are safe and adaptive ways to address uncomfortable emotions, and should be used when needed.
- Workouts start to impact relationships. When you notice that you are spending more time training than you spend with a spouse, or opt to stay at the gym instead of attending get-togethers with friends, it could be indicative of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. As with any eating disorder, exercise addicts tend to withdraw and isolate themselves from their friends and family in order to continue unhealthy behaviors.
- Other priorities suffer. In a similar vein, someone who frequently misses work deadlines or a child’s soccer games because exercise is viewed as more significant in the grand scheme of things is showing a sign of exercise addiction.
- Happiness is re-defined. For those who are exercise addicts, mood or happiness may be dictated solely by the outcome of the latest workout, how their body looks on that given day or how fit they currently perceive themselves to be.
- You continually extend workouts. It is quite common for someone struggling with an exercise addiction to add on workouts wherever they can, whether it’s extra reps on the bench press or running home after a hard soccer practice.
- You work out excessively. Some marathon training programs call for “two-a-days” to build mileage, but consistently doing this — without any specific training goal and without being monitored by a medical professional — could result in negative mental and physical ramifications.
- Exercise loses the element of play and fun. Dr. George Sheehan, author of Running & Being, says it perfectly, “The things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun – not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is.” Exercise needs to be fun, not viewed as a chore or “must-do” when you simply don’t feel up to it.
It’s important to note these red flags don’t necessarily mean someone is addicted to exercise; rather, they provide an outline of universal symptoms that CAN be indicators that a greater problem exists. If the above statements describe your experience, please consider discussing your concern with a professional.
9 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction
While exercise addiction is not currently included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there is a growing body of anecdotal, professional, and scientific evidence to show that it is a real and serious condition.
What is Exercise Addiction?
Exercise addiction is a compulsive disorder in which a person feels the uncontrollable need to exercise excessively. It goes beyond simple enjoyment of exercise and often results in injury or illness. Like other behavioral addictions, a person must demonstrate most of the following symptoms to be considered as suffering from exercise addiction:1
- Loss of control: inability to control the urge to exercise or to stop exercising for a significant time, especially in the presence of an injury that requires time to heal.
- Continuance: continuing to exercise even in the presence of injuries, physical problems, psychological issues, or interpersonal problems.
- Intention effects: going beyond the original intended duration, frequency, or intensity of exercise without meaning to do so.
- Time: spending a great deal of time engaging in, planning for, thinking about, or recovering from exercise.
- Reduction in other activities: spending less time in social, occupational, or other situations as a direct result of exercise.
- Tolerance: needing to exercise more often, for longer durations, or at higher intensity to feel the desired effect than you originally did.
- Withdrawal: feelings of irritability, restlessness, or anxiety after a period without exercise.
Exercise addiction can occur independently or in conjunction with another disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.2 There is some disagreement about what constitutes exercise addiction, which makes it difficult to determine how common the condition is. Some research studies equate exercise addiction with the commitment demonstrated by marathon runners. However, in more thoughtful and statistically sound research studies, excessive exercise is only considered an addiction when people report that they feel compelled to exercise and they have suffered serious physical, social, or occupational problems because of their exercise.2 These research studies agree that approximately 3% of people who exercise regularly are addicted to it; the condition is much more common in people in their late teens or early 20s.2 Other estimates have found that upward of 42% of regular gym-goers meet the criteria for exercise addiction;1 however, these are concentrated samples taken from locations with frequent or committed exercisers.
Has Your Exercise Become An Addiction?
While behavioral health and mental health tend to overlap, and many organizations substitute one term for the other, distinct differences do exist between the two. Many mental health disorders have neurological or biological causes, meaning that simply changing a person’s behavior may not cure them of that illness. Read More
Different Stages of Development
There are two types of exercise addiction: primary exercise addiction and secondary exercise addiction. In each case, exercise addiction develops differently.
Primary Exercise Addiction
Primary exercise addiction is more common in males and usually develops in the response to endorphins.
Primary exercise addiction occurs as a form of behavioral addiction, but these people do not have any other psychological or behavioral conditions—exercise addiction is the main problem.2 Primary exercise addiction is more common in males and usually develops in response to the pleasurable effects of endorphins that are released during and after exercise.2 This is how exercise makes the body produce its own high, which is what primary exercise addicts become addicted to.
Secondary Exercise Addiction
Secondary exercise addiction occurs in conjunction with another disorder, most commonly eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.2 Secondary exercise addiction is more common in females and usually develops due to body image issues.2
Anorexia is an eating disorder involving self-starvation that leads to excessive weight loss. Even when people with this disorder are dangerously thin, they still believe they need to lose weight. Risk factors for anorexia include:3
- A preoccupation with weight and body shape.
- Having an anxiety disorder as a child.
- Negative self-image.
- Having eating problems during infancy or early childhood.
- Holding strong or extreme social or cultural ideas about beauty, appearance, and health.
- A preoccupation with being perfect.
- Being overly concerned with rules.
When exercise addiction is accompanied by anorexia and the primary motivation for the individual is to lose weight, this condition is called anorexia athletica.1
Another cause for secondary exercise addiction is bulimia, which is a serious eating disorder that involves a cycle of binging and purging.4 Binging refers to eating a very large amount of food in a specific period of time (typically within 2 hours), often to the point of feeling sick. To compensate for the high intake of calories, some people will exercise excessively, which, over time, can develop into exercise addiction.4 The cause of bulimia is unknown, but it is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, psychological, and cultural factors.4
What are the Physical Repercussions?
Exercise addiction is associated with a number of physical and psychological side effects, including:5
- Detrimental social consequences.
- Disturbed psychological functioning.
- Exercising despite medical contraindications.
- Interference with relationships or work.
- Withdrawal symptoms such as agitation, anxiety, or restlessness after not exercising for a time.
One of the most serious physical consequences of compulsive exercise is an increased risk for injury or an increased number of exercise-related injuries.2 While regular exercise strengthens the muscles and bones, too much exercise increases the risk for stress fractures. Those who have existing injuries may aggravate their injuries and lengthen the amount of time needed to recover completely. Some examples of injuries caused by excessive exercise include:5
- Joint inflammation/ damage.
- Loss of muscle mass.
- Sprained ligaments.
- Strained or torn muscles or tendons.
Another physical risk associated with exercise addiction is menstrual disturbance in women.5 Due to an unhealthy body mass, the female body stops releasing eggs and the woman misses one or multiple periods.5 This is most common in females who have secondary exercise addiction accompanied by an eating disorder, but it can happen with primary exercise addiction as well.5
Exercise addiction is also commonly associated with substance abuse. Research suggests that 15%–20% of exercise addicts are also addicted to either nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs.1 Not only can these substances have adverse effects on the body on their own, but if you are already weakened by excessive exercise, a substance abuse problem could pose increased risks for harm.
Social and Psychological Side Effects
Due to the amount of time that exercise-addicted people spend exercising and obsessing about exercising, many suffer from dysfunctional relationships. Family and friends often feel left out, unable to approach the person, or upset about the way the exercise-addicted person chooses to spend their time. Even when friends and family members have the best intentions, approaching someone about compulsive exercise can also create relationship conflict.
Some people with this disorder skip classes or take unpaid time off from work to exercise, which interferes with their education and reduces their income. Exercise addiction can make it difficult to carry on a satisfying social life, since people with this disorder often skip special events and activities to exercise. Even exercising with other people is difficult, since compulsive exercisers do not like to have their routines disturbed. They would rather exercise on their own so they can control the components and timing of the exercise session.
Going 6 hours without exercising may provoke anxiety for someone addicted to exercise.
Exercise addiction can cause emotional distress, especially when accompanied by negative body image or a lack of self-esteem. In particular, people suffering from exercise addiction often experience symptoms of anxiety after a period without exercise.2 The length of time between exercise sessions is subjective: though going 24–48 hours without exercising may seem normal for most people, going 6 hours without exercising may provoke anxiety for someone addicted to exercise. If the person is prevented from exercising or is forced to reduce the frequency of exercise, they will likely experience irritability, guilt, anxiousness, and sluggishness.2 These feelings may also occur when a compulsive exerciser experiences a disruption in their exercise routine.
When someone has developed a primary exercise addiction, it is common for that person to suffer depression-like symptoms when forced to stop or reduce exercising.2 For people with primary exercise addiction, exercise is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, so when that coping mechanism is taken away, they don’t know how to deal with the stress of daily life. These feelings of depression are often worsened by withdrawal from the exerciser’s regular endorphin fix.2
Different Treatment Options
Exercise addiction is serious, but there are treatment options available. The first step in choosing a treatment option is figuring out whether you have a primary or secondary exercise addiction. Treatment will be most effective if the root cause of the problem is addressed first. If the underlying condition is anorexia nervosa, for example, then treatment should focus on the eating disorder.
Exercise addiction is challenging to treat because exercise is a healthy habit that should be incorporated into each person’s daily life.
Once the root problem is identified, the next step is to determine if another condition needs to be addressed first for health or safety reasons. For example, though exercise addiction can be extremely harmful, a co-occurring substance abuse problem may be more immediately threatening. In such cases, the substance abuse problem may need to be addressed first. It is important to consult with a medical professional and a mental health professional when seeking treatment for exercise addiction because the condition affects the physical body as much as your mental condition.
With the problems properly identified and prioritized, a behavioral health professional can help you begin treatment. Right now, there are no prescription drugs available for exercise addiction treatment, but research continues to discover if certain drugs can help you control your impulses to engage in harmful behaviors. A medical or mental health professional may prescribe medication to address symptoms that result from exercise addiction and exercise withdrawal, such as anxiety or depression. A medical professional may also prescribe medications to help with any physical injuries caused by excessive exercise.
Exercise addiction is challenging to treat because exercise is a healthy habit that should be incorporated into each person’s daily life. Also, what may seem like a challenging workout for one person may be easier for someone in better shape. So it becomes difficult to define what is within the bounds of normal, healthy exercise and what is harmful.
Exercise addiction treatment is further complicated by the fact that abstinence is not usually an option. While some people suffering from exercise addiction may need to take time off from exercise to recover from existing injuries, eventually exercise should be reincorporated into a daily routine.
Recognize dysfunctional thought patterns that lead to excessive exercise.
To get a better understanding of your specific case of exercise addiction, behavioral health professionals may use an assessment tool called the Exercise Dependence Scale.1 This tool is used to determine how severe your reliance on exercise is on an emotional and psychological level. As treatment progresses, a counselor or therapist may ask you to complete the assessment again to determine what progress you’ve made.
With primary exercise addiction, it is likely that you do not have any other coping skills for dealing with stress. In this case, treatment focuses on building healthy coping skills and using cognitive behavioral therapy to recognize dysfunctional thought patterns that lead to excessive exercise.1
In cases of secondary exercise addiction, the therapist focuses on self-esteem issues and distorted body image. Medications such as anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers are commonly prescribed in the early stages of eating disorder treatment.6 Other therapies include individual therapy, group therapy, nutritional counseling, and medical monitoring.1
As many as 35% of people with an eating disorder will relapse, and while exercise addiction further complicates the treatment process, recovery is possible.7 It is often a lifelong battle to establish healthy habits and boundaries that prevent normal eating and exercise patterns from reverting to excessive or overly controlled, but with the right treatment and continued support, you can go on to live a healthy life.