Addiction to Exercise

Everyone knows the benefits of exercise: improved cardiovascular health, improved mood, weight loss, strong bones and muscles, reduced risk of diseases. For some people, exercise goes beyond the recommended 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, and a 30-minute workout becomes a 2-hour workout. The intensity increases well beyond the norm.

But is that a bad thing? Can you become addicted to exercise?

In a country where 34.9 percent of adults are considered obese, it seems like more exercise is better. But it is possible to become so obsessed with exercise it becomes an addiction that could be harmful mentally, physically and socially. Understanding the difference between being committed to an exercise routine and entering into addiction can help you determine if your gym routine is healthy or harmful.

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Addiction to Exercise Defined

What is addiction to exercise? Is addiction to exercise a symptom or disorder? Is it more than just exercising a lot? These are common questions about exercise addiction and ones that often include gray areas rather than black and white answers.

Exercise addiction goes beyond being strongly committed to exercise or overtraining for a short period of time. Exercise addiction occurs when exercise becomes a compulsion or obsession that throws off the balance of your life. You lose sight of how to balance exercise with other parts of your life. Your obsession with exercise comes at the expense of other meaningful parts of your life, such as family, friends and work.

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Exercise addiction is more about the psychological reasons for excessive exercising than the physical activity itself. An ultra marathon runner spends a great deal of time training for long distances, but he can still maintain a healthy balance in his life. A compulsive need to exercise, even at the sacrifice of other things, is often the distinguishing factor between someone who is addicted to exercise and someone who simply exercises a lot.

What Causes Addiction to Exercise?

An estimated 3 percent of the general population may have an addiction to exercise. Certain populations, such as ultra marathon runners, tend to have a higher rate of exercise addiction because of the demands of the sport.

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The exact cause of an exercise addiction is often difficult to pinpoint. For some people, it starts in a healthy way. You start exercising to lose weight, improve your health or deal with stress in a positive way. When you work out, you see physical results or feel the mental and emotional benefits. You see a lower number on the scale. Your muscles become noticeably larger. You bound up stairs without getting winded. You notice an increase in your endurance and strength. Your mood improves.

And you also enjoy the feel-good effects of the endorphins and dopamine that are released during exercise. It feels good, and you want more of it. For runners, this is often described as the “runner’s high.” Those who become addicted to exercise chase that feeling, which often becomes more difficult to achieve as the amount of exercise increases. Eventually, you have to push yourself harder to feel that same sensation. You start cutting other things from your life to make more time to exercise. What started as something healthy and positive becomes a negative factor on other areas of your life.

Others develop an addiction to exercise due to an unhealthy pathway. It might start as an eating disorder. Exercise becomes a way to lose more weight, along with anorexia or bulimia. An individual with bulimia may exercise compulsively to make up for binge eating. In these situations, it’s not the “high” from the exercise itself but the physical results that become the obsession.

Certain people are at a higher risk for developing an addiction to exercise, including:

  • People with eating disorders. As we just covered, addiction to exercise and eating disorders sometimes occur together. Between 39 and 48 percent of people with eating disorders also have an exercise addiction.
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  • Perfectionists. Not all people with a perfectionist personality end up with exercise addiction, but individuals who are intense and high-achieving and also exhibit perfectionist tendencies may have a higher risk of developing an addiction to exercise. They may feel the pressure to achieve a high level of fitness or a near-perfect body shape.
  • People who have low self-esteem. People who lack strong self-esteem may be more vulnerable to an exercise addiction. The results from the excessive exercise make the individual feel better, giving a sense of self-esteem that is otherwise missing.
  • Individuals who need control. Exercising gives a sense of control over the body and may fulfill the need to have control over your life. You may not be able to control relationships, your job or things that happen to you, but you can control your workouts. And you may feel like you have control over how your body looks thanks to those workouts.
  • People dealing with other addictions. If you have another addiction, you may be more likely to develop an addiction to exercise. While it’s tough to calculate an exact percentage, it is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of people who are addicted to exercise also have addictions to alcohol, nicotine or illicit drugs. Up to 25 percent of people with an addiction have at least one other addiction. People with sex or shopping addictions in particular may also develop an addiction to exercise.

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Signs and Symptoms

The line between a healthy commitment to exercise and addiction to exercise is often a fuzzy one. The amount of time spent exercising doesn’t define exercise addiction. The psychological reasons for exercising are more telling in identifying an addiction to working out.

If you’re asking yourself, “How do I know if I am addicted to exercise?” you’re not alone. Exercise is a socially acceptable activity. Athletic achievement is praised and envied. You may not even realize your workouts have crossed the line into the area of addiction. Recognizing the signs of addiction to exercise can help you determine if you need help developing a healthier relationship with physical activity.

While identifying an unhealthy relationship with exercise isn’t always easy, certain characteristics are common among those with an addiction to exercise. People who are addicted to exercise may show the following signs and symptoms:

  • Spending an increased amount of time or increased intensity to get the same results once achieved by less exercise, such as seeing improved physical results or feeling the “high” from exercising. This symptom is also described as building up tolerance to the effects, such as increased energy or improved mood.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when exercise isn’t possible, often in the form of a negative attitude — sometimes to the point of depression — as well as irritability when you can’t work out.
  • Exercising much longer or more intensely than intended, being unable to stick to a predetermined amount of exercise time or pushing yourself well beyond the point of exhaustion to get in a longer, more intense workout.
  • Being unable to cut back on exercise, even when you are aware it is interfering with other obligations.
  • Dedicating large amounts of time toward exercise and fitness-related activities, especially at the expense of other activities in your life. Exercise becomes an obsession that takes over different parts of your life and begins to take over even important commitments, such as work.
  • Cutting out non-fitness activities, such as hobbies or social time, that were once important in order to give more time to exercise.
  • Exercising even when you’re injured or sick and sometimes at inappropriate or dangerous times, such as running outdoors in a thunderstorm or ignoring your doctor’s orders to rest and recover from an injury.
  • Feeling like your happiness hinges on exercising, fitness level or body shape.
  • Developing conflict due to your exercise routine, perhaps with loved ones or even with your boss if your exercise routine affects your work performance.
  • Hiding workouts or lying about the amount of exercise you do.

Having one or even more than one of the above characteristics doesn’t mean you are addicted to exercise. Your attitude about exercise is often the determining factor. If it becomes an all-consuming part of your life or you develop a harmful attitude about exercise, that outlook could indicate an addiction to exercise. Losing balance in your life in order to exercise excessively is often a key sign of exercise addiction.

Dangers of Exercise Addiction

An addiction to exercise seems like it should be a healthy one. Bigger muscles, better endurance and weight loss are positive effects, right? But you can experience some potentially dangerous and severe side effects when you develop an unhealthy relationship with excessive exercise. Addiction to exercise effects include physical, psychological and social consequences. Often, the physical benefits that seem to justify an exercise addiction start to drop off or become more difficult to achieve as exercise increases.

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Potential dangers and complications from exercise addiction include:

  • Lower-than-expected physical results. Compared to the large amount of time spent exercising each day, you may not see the type of physical gains you would expect to see. This is because your performance often suffers when you focus on exercising more and more rather than on the actual value of the exercise. Running three times as long doesn’t always mean three times the physical gains. The slower-than-desired improvement may lead to even longer or more intense workouts, which continues the cycle of exercise addiction. You may not see improvements in your running pace, for example, so you run longer or add interval training.
  • Physical injuries. Exercising excessively may lead to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures. The addiction tends to push you to exercise despite injury, which increases the risk of more severe damage. Sprains, strains and other painful injuries won’t keep you from getting in your workouts.
  • Adrenal gland stress. The adrenal gland produces the hormones that make you feel good during physical activity. The amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal gland is limited. When you overdo exercise, your adrenal gland can’t keep up. The more you push yourself to find that “high,” the more stress you put on your adrenal gland.
  • Missed periods. Women who develop an addiction to exercise may experience an interruption in normal menstruation. Some women stop menstruating altogether due to the amount of energy expended during excessive exercise. Low body weight can also contribute to missed periods. Women with an addiction to exercise are also at greater risk for developing osteoporosis, a dangerous condition.
  • Withdrawal symptoms. If you are addicted to exercise, you may feel irritable or anxious when you can’t exercise. You may feel guilty over missed workouts. These symptoms negatively affect your mental and emotional health.
  • Depression. While exercise is often said to help avoid feelings of depression and generally improve your mood, an addiction to exercise can actually cause depression. Along the same lines as being irritable and anxious, you may feel depressed when you can’t work out.
  • Lost relationships. Excessive amounts of exercise take time away from relationships. When exercise replaces social engagements and takes precedence over commitments to friends and family, those relationships often suffer. The other person may feel ignored or rejected, causing distance or conflict in the relationship. If a friend or family member addresses the addiction to exercise, this may cause additional conflict, especially if you aren’t aware of the problem or aren’t ready to address the exercise addiction.

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Ways to Manage an Exercise Addiction

Treatment can help you regain a healthy relationship with exercise once you become aware of the negative effects addiction has on your life. Unlike some addictions where the goal is to completely eliminate the behavior, exercise addiction treatment often aims to reign in exercise to a moderate and healthy level rather than stopping exercise completely. Some treatment plans may call for a break from exercise with a gradual return to avoid the obsessive behaviors.

Treatment may also focus on improving self-esteem or addressing distorted body image issues. Addressing the contributing factors helps alleviate the need to compensate through excessive exercise. Professional help can set you on the right path once you accept that exercise addiction is having a negative impact on your life, but you can also make changes on your own to support the treatment.

Some ways to achieve better balance and a healthier relationship with exercise in addition to treatment include:

  • Choosing a different exercise activity, especially if your addiction is based on a specific physical activity. If you are addicted to running, you might try swimming or biking instead as a way to move away from the activity that was the focus of the addiction. Varying your workout can also reduce the risk of certain types of injuries associated with a particular sport. For example, stress fractures are common in runners. Swimming instead can reduce the risk of stress fractures.
  • Trying a social sport instead of a solitary one or finding workout partners to keep you in check. It’s easier to become compulsive and push yourself harder than you planned if you work out alone. Playing a group sport or cycling with a group of friends turns exercise into a social activity, building relationships that were previously neglected due to exercise addiction. You also have your workout partners to help you recognize if your routine becomes too intense.
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  • Enlisting the help of a trainer to plan appropriate weekly workouts with rest and recovery time built in. Choose an experienced trainer who is aware of your addiction to exercise. Set maximum limits each week to keep you in check.
  • Scheduling your workouts ahead of time, including the length, type and intensity, to keep your workouts from taking over your routine. Record what you actually do, including warm-ups and cool-downs, to ensure you stick to your scheduled times.
  • Reserving one or two days per week with no exercise. This gives your body a chance to recover, which reduces the risk of injury and may help avoid plateaus in your physical gains. The day off also gives you a chance to focus on other activities and relationships that were previously neglected.
  • Not doubling up a workout to make up for a missed workout. Continue with your exercise schedule as written without worrying about making up the missed session.
  • Listening to your body and following your doctor’s orders when an injury does occur. Pay attention to pain, as it often indicates an injury. While it’s tempting to push through, exercising with an injury can make it worse. This could force you to take an even longer break from exercise down the road.
  • Setting goals outside of fitness to refocus on other areas of your life you previously pushed aside. This might include spending time with friends and family, attending social events or learning a new hobby that is not related to fitness. For example, commit to attending one social event each week or decide to take classes to learn a new skill.
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  • Seek support from those around you. Let them know how to help you and what types of things are not helpful. For example, jokes about your body or excessive exercising may be hurtful and make you want to exercise more, which is counterproductive. Speak up and let your supporters know what helps you and what makes you feel worse.
  • Identify other addictions or behaviors that contribute to your exercise addiction. Address those issues at the same time.

One potential problem in managing multiple addictions is only addressing one without seeking treatment for others. For example, if you have both an eating disorder and an addiction to exercise but only the eating disorder is addressed, the addiction to exercise may continue. This still puts you at risk for potential side effects. Likewise, if the exercise addiction is treated but the eating disorder is not, the decreased exercise and subsequent decrease in weight loss may lead to more severe anorexic or bulimic actions to compensate.

A personalized treatment plan based on your level of addiction to exercise helps you overcome the negative effects it has on your life. A well-rounded approach to treatment is often effective in regaining a healthy balance in your life.

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Take the Next Step

Overcoming addiction is an uphill battle, but it is not one that you have to fight alone. 12 Keys Rehab provides an individualized approach to your recovery from addiction. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact 12 Keys Rehab. We’ll help you get your life back on track.

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