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Possible Reasons for Developing an Addiction to Exercise
As a behavioral addiction, exercise addiction is sometimes overlooked compared to substance use disorders. However, if left unchecked, exercise addiction can lead to serious health issues and injuries.
Understanding the underlying causes of exercise addiction can help patients and physicians better identify the signs of exercise addiction. Treating the condition early on can avoid serious harm, and individuals can learn to develop healthier relationships with physical activity.
What Causes Exercise Addiction?
Anyone of any age, race, or background can develop an exercise addiction. However, some studies have narrowed down a few common causes or contributing factors in developing exercise addiction.
Like with other behavioral addictions, the causes of exercise addiction can be one or a combination of several factors. Research indicates that the primary causes are changes in brain chemistry, genetic predisposition for addiction, and co-occurring mental illnesses.
There’s no question that regular exercise is generally great for not only our physical health but also our mental health. Regular exercise promotes neuroplasticity and increases oxygen levels in your brain, along with several neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine.
Dopamine is a common culprit in other behavioral addictions and substance use disorders, and for a good reason: dopamine plays a huge role in feelings of pleasure.
Endorphins, on the other hand, relieve pain, improve mood, and reduce stress. Both play a role in effects like “runners high” or “exercise high.”
However, the reward center in the brains of exercise addicts can become dependent on the constant release of dopamine and endorphins for their positive effects. Over time, addicts must depend on excessive exercise to avoid withdrawal symptoms and for their brains to function.
Coping With Stress or Mental Illness
Exercise is often recommended for people who suffer from stress, depression, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses. Although decades of research show that exercise can help many of these conditions, some people take their amount of exercise to an unhealthy or dangerous extent.
Exercise addicts may use compulsive exercise to cope with or escape intense emotions, stress, or other mental health conditions. Unfortunately, excessive exercise and chasing that “high” can cause dependence and worsen the addict’s issues.
Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia
Many people who suffer from eating disorders or body dysmorphia tend to have higher risks of exercise addiction.
People with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa may over-exercise to accelerate weight loss, usually in combination with restricting or purging food.
While body dysmorphia often co-occurs with eating disorders, the condition can exist independently.
Body dysmorphia or body dysmorphic disorder causes patients to have extreme issues with body image. They may perceive small physical features as huge, irredeemable flaws that cause immense distress.
Whether through eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder, both groups may be at elevated risk of exercise addiction and compulsively exercising despite negative consequences.
Recovery From Other Addictions
Individuals in recovery from drug addiction or alcohol use disorder may exercise as part of their recovery journey, as it can improve physical and mental health.
However, some addicts may simply be trading one addiction behavior for another if they over-exercise and become dependent on physical activity.
For example, someone with a drug addiction that caused a massive dopamine release due to drug use may turn to the dopamine and endorphins released during exercise for a similar “high.”
It’s important for recovering addicts to be aware of their exercise behaviors and their reasons for exercising in the first place.
Family History of Addiction
Studies have shown that certain genes can make someone more likely to develop an addiction. These genes are passed to you by your parents, so a history of addiction within your family can indicate the genetic possibility of addiction.
Aside from genes, upbringing, and exposure to certain substances or behaviors can also lead to exercise addiction. For example, if a parent or sibling you’re raised with has an addiction to exercise, you may be more likely to develop exercise addiction.
Exercise Addiction Risk Factors
Anyone can develop exercise addiction, especially considering how huge the health and fitness industry has become. We constantly see advertisements or social media content promoting certain exercise routines and encouraging extreme weight loss.
Obesity has become a massive public health issue in the US over the past few decades, leading many health professionals to prescribe exercise as part of their treatment plans.
However, certain individuals may be at risk of developing exercise addiction and should proceed cautiously when exercising.
Common risk factors of exercise addiction include:
- Being an endurance athlete, especially in sports with pressure to look a certain way, like ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, or running
- History of addiction within the family
- Co-occurring mental illnesses like eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, and personality traits like perfectionism, narcissism, and neuroticism
- Body image issues or low self-esteem
- Past addiction or substance abuse issues
Exercise Addiction VS Frequently Exercising
Considering the prevalence of professional athletes, bodybuilders, and personal trainers, it can be difficult to tell the difference between frequent exercise and exercise addiction.
While someone working out multiple days a week may seem excessive, this doesn’t necessarily mean they have an addiction. Hobbyists or professional athletes are slightly more likely to develop an exercise addiction, but it’s not guaranteed.
Individuals with a healthy relationship to exercise don’t experience withdrawal symptoms or the negative consequences commonly seen in exercise addiction.
How to Identify an Exercise Addiction
Understanding the symptoms of exercise addiction is an important first step to spotting the condition. While not an exhaustive list, these warning signs can be an easy guide if you suspect exercise addiction in yourself or a loved one.
Common signs of exercise addiction include:
- Feeling buzzed or high after exercising
- Having withdrawal symptoms after long periods without exercise
- Experiencing intense, uncontrollable cravings to exercise
- Stopping or reducing activities in other areas of life to make time for exercise
- Spending long periods preparing for and recovering from exercise
- Struggling to cut back on exercise routines or the amount of time spent exercising
- Feeling anxious or guilty if you do not exercise
- Exercising even when it’s disruptive to your normal schedule
- Being unable to do other things in your life because you need to exercise
- Feeling like exercise isn’t fun anymore
- Exercising even when you have injuries or are ill
- Skipping school, work, or social events to exercise
Finding Treatment for Exercise Addiction
You’re not alone if you or a loved one is currently experiencing exercise addiction. Many providers are available and ready to guide you in exercise addiction treatment.
Inpatient rehab is very rare for the treatment of exercise addiction. Instead, cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy are highly effective interventions for exercise addiction.
Ask your doctor about your exercise habits and determine the recommended treatment options. If you don’t have a doctor, try using SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-877-726-4727 (HELP) to learn what treatment centers are near you.