Exercise Addiction

Exercise is a great way to stay in shape and live a healthy life. However, some individuals can become obsessed with exercise, leading them to continue working out despite harmful consequences to their health and well-being. Fortunately, exercise addiction is treatable. Suppose you or a loved one is struggling with feeling that you’ve lost control over your ability to regulate your exercise or are worried that you might be addicted to working out. In that case, you can seek an evaluation from your doctor or mental health provider.

Exercise as a Behavioral Addiction

Exercise addiction falls under the category of behavioral addiction. However, it is not yet recognized as one by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) due to lack of peer-reviewed research. A behavioral addiction (such as exercise addiction) occurs when someone becomes so obsessed with an activity that it leads to addiction.

Behavioral addiction works in the brain similarly to drug use. Repeated behavior, like repeated substance use, makes the brain crave more of that substance or activity. Whereas someone suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction becomes addicted to a substance, a person suffering from a behavioral addiction often finds themselves addicted to an activity, like working out.

In both cases, the individual experiences a loss of control over their compulsive behavior, continuing to engage in substance abuse or addictive behavior (like exercise) regardless of the consequences.

Other activities commonly tied to behavioral addiction include:

  • Gambling
  • Internet and social media
  • Pornography
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Video games

When Exercise Becomes a Problem

Since regular exercise is good for our brain and body, it might seem that there wouldn’t ever be an issue with the amount of exercise a person does. However, it is possible to develop an unhealthy relationship with exercise, eventually leading to addiction and other negative consequences.

Defining Exercise Addiction

Since exercise is an activity that can help our overall health and well-being when done properly and in moderation, the line between healthy exercise and excessive exercise can be a fine one.

Exercise addiction occurs when a person’s relationship crosses that line, and they continue to exercise even when it is detrimental to them. Exercise addiction can lead to physical ailments (e.g., injury, health problems, etc.) and problems in a person’s personal and professional life.

As with other types of addictions, someone suffering from an exercise addiction can experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not working out. Some of the withdrawal symptoms of exercise addiction include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep issues
  • Mood swings

What Makes Exercise Potentially Addictive

When we exercise, it produces endorphins and dopamine in specific neurotransmitters of our brain. These “feel-good chemicals” are part of our brain’s reward center, encouraging us to continue the behavior in the future.

For instance, the exercise community sometimes uses terms like “runners high” or “exercise high” to describe their positive rush when working out.

As more dopamine and endorphins release through regular exercise, the brain can become used to receiving these chemicals, eventually becoming dependent upon them. As a result, you might prioritize working out over other daily activities, even going so far as to continue to work out even when you don’t want to, as you chase that high.

Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction

Since exercise addiction is a behavioral addiction, someone suffering from exercise addiction might display some of the following characteristics:

  • Having to exercise more and more to get their “runners high” or “exercise high”
  • Trying to reduce or even completely stop exercising and not being able to
  • Setting a specific amount of time to exercise and constantly exceeding it
  • Spending a significant amount of time thinking about, preparing for, and engaging in exercise
  • Prioritizing exercising over other important events and activities such as work, school, and personal relationships
  • Continuing to exercise despite knowing the negative consequences it is causing
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not exercising (e.g., irritability, anxiety, and sleep problems)
  • No longer getting any joy out of exercising
  • No longer improving their overall quality of life
  • Continuing to exercise despite health concerns, such as injury or health risks from particular physical activities

Exercise Addiction Risks and Consequences

Just because someone exercises often doesn’t mean they are or will become an addict. However, some people are at a higher risk of developing exercise addiction than others. Being aware of risk factors and warning signs can help you avoid potentially falling into an addiction to exercise down the road.

Risk Factors for Developing Exercise Addiction

When someone suffers from exercise addiction, their relationship with working out has become unhealthy. Their self-esteem often becomes directly linked to their exercise routine as they obsess over their body image.

While some people exercise to control their appearance, others may also develop eating disorders as their need to manage their physical appearance spirals out of control.

Another type of person at risk of exercise addiction is someone who has dealt with a previous addiction, usually a substance addiction. Many people in recovery from substance use turn to exercise as a positive, healthy way to take up time they used to spend drinking or using drugs.

Unfortunately, some recovering addicts begin to use exercise to fill a void and can become physically dependent on that rush of dopamine and endorphins they get from working out.

Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders

According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), approximately 40% of all people suffering from an eating disorder also have an exercise addiction. The correlation between exercise addiction and eating disorders is particularly prevalent among those suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

People who suffer from anorexia or bulimia tend to have a distorted opinion of how they should look physically. They use excessive exercise not only as a form of validation for how they think they should appear but also as a way to boost their self-esteem and achieve their body goals.

Negative Consequences of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction can lead to a variety of physical and mental problems, and it can also lead to problems in a person’s personal life.

Below are some of the negative consequences associated with exercise addiction:

  • Developing an eating disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • Heart problems
  • Joint damage
  • Organ failure
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Strained or torn muscles
  • Social and relationship issues

Prevalence of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction doesn’t just affect your stereotypical “gym rat.” It affects people of all ages, exercise behaviors, and genders.

Below are some statistics about exercise addiction and its prevalence:

  • Roughly 3% of the entire exercising population suffers from exercise addiction
  • Approximately 5% of amateur athletes suffer from exercise addiction
  • Close to 4% of all student-athletes suffer from some form of exercise addiction
  • Nearly 40% of all people with an eating disorder also suffer from alcohol addiction

Exercise Addiction Diagnosis and Screening

While you can go to your doctor or a mental health professional to determine whether or not you have an exercise addiction, you can also take a self-assessment from the comfort of your home.

The Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) is the only recognized screening for exercise addiction. It can help identify those already suffering from exercise addiction as well as individuals who might be at risk for developing an addiction to exercise.

Since it might seem like you or a loved one is just really passionate about working out, diagnosing an exercise addiction can sometimes be challenging. Identifying and treating exercise addiction early on is crucial from a physical and mental perspective.

Exercise Addiction Treatment

If the EAI has determined you have an exercise addiction or feel like your relationship with exercise is no longer healthy, getting help is essential.

Unlike substance addiction, rehab isn’t necessary for treating an addiction to exercise.  The most successful treatment for exercise addiction is psychotherapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” helps patients identify and work through any underlying reasons behind developing their exercise addiction. This type of therapy offers new, healthier ways to deal with triggers or cravings in the future.

Sometimes, healthcare providers may prescribe certain medications to assist you during treatment. While there is no FDA-regulated medication specifically for exercise addiction, your doctor might recommend medications to address other mental health conditions (e.g., stress, anxiety, or depression) that might have contributed to developing an addiction to exercise.

Get Help for Exercise Addiction

While exercising is an activity that can be good for you, moderation and healthy limits are key. There is a fine line between a healthy and unhealthy relationship with working out.

If you or someone you know is suffering from exercise addiction, it’s important to get help by reaching out to a therapist or primary care doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions About Exercise Addiction

Can exercise be an addiction?

Yes. While many people associate exercise with health, you can have an unhealthy relationship with exercise and physical activity to the point where you become addicted to working out.

How do you know if you’re addicted to exercise?

There are several warning signs that you might either be developing an addiction to exercise or are already addicted. Some warning signs include:

  • No longer getting any joy out of exercising
  • Having to increase your exercise load to reach your desired effect
  • Continuing to exercise even when you try to stop
  • Prioritizing exercising over other activities and responsibilities
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about or preparing for your next workout session
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not exercising

Why is working out so addictive?

When we work out and exercise, the activity releases “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. Over time, the brain craves these natural chemicals, leading us to work out even more to satisfy this craving.

What are the dangers of exercise addiction?

Exercising too much can lead to the development of physical and psychological ailments, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Extreme weight loss, sometimes including developing an eating disorder
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • Heart problems
  • Joint damage
  • Organ failure
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Strained or torn muscles
  • Social impairment

What’s the difference between a strong workout routine and an addiction to exercise?

Someone who likes to work out a lot or has a vigorous exercise routine will spend a lot of time and energy on exercise. However, what separates them from an exercise addict is that they know when to stop and can stop. They will allow their body and muscles proper time to rest and will not put their workout or exercise routine ahead of other responsibilities.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction GuideWritten by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

10 references
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