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Causes of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is a harmful behavioral addiction that needs to be identified and treated early. Understanding its root causes and warning signs can prevent serious health problems and injuries. With proper care, individuals can establish healthier relationships with physical activity.

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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.

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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.

Brain Chemistry

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.

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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
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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.

FAQ's About Exercise Addiction Causes

Is it common to become addicted to working out?

Exercise addiction is fairly common among behavioral addictions. Anyone can experience exercise addiction, from adolescents to elders. However, certain people are more likely to develop the condition than others.

Common risk factors for exercise addiction include:

  • Being an athlete
  • Co-occurring mental illnesses like eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and personality traits like perfectionism, narcissism, and neuroticism
  • Past addiction issues
  • History of addiction within the family
  • Body image issues or low self-esteem

How can I prevent getting addicted to exercise?

The first step you can take is to determine if you are among those at risk for developing exercise addiction. If you’re at risk for the condition, speak with your family, friends, and healthcare providers about your concerns.

By having people to hold you accountable and looking out for your well-being, you’re more likely to avoid developing exercise addiction or be able to catch early signs that a problem is brewing.

Is exercise addiction a real thing?

Yes. Although exercise addiction is not specifically listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), it is considered under the umbrella of behavioral addictions among gambling addiction, shopping addiction, and porn addiction.

For those who experience exercise addiction and providers who treat it, the condition is very real and can have devastating effects on their life.

What is the biggest risk factor for developing exercise addiction?

Being an athlete or having co-occurring mental illnesses like eating disorders, OCD, ADHD, and impulsive personality traits tend to be the biggest risk factors for developing exercise addiction.

For athletes, in particular, the pressure to maintain a certain body type and fitness level can lead to compulsive behaviors around exercise.

What causes exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction can be caused by several factors. Common causes of exercise addiction include:

  • Certain genes connected to addiction passed down through your family
  • Changes in brain chemistry
  • Eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia
  • Coping with stress or negative emotions with exercise
Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  2. de la Vega, R., Parastatidou, I. S., Ruíz-Barquín, R., & Szabo, A. (2016, June). Exercise Addiction in Athletes and Leisure Exercisers: The Moderating Role of Passion. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27363466/
  3. Di Lodovico, L., Poulnais, S., & Gorwood, P. (2019, June). Which Sports Are More at Risk of Physical Exercise Addiction: A Systematic Review. Addictive Behaviors. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30595420/
  4. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011, October). Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210598/
  5. Sussman, S., Lisha, N., & Griffiths, M. (2010, September 27). Prevalence of the Addictions: A Problem of the Majority or the Minority?. Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0163278710380124
  6. Weinstein, A. (2023, January 20). Exercise Addiction: A Narrative Overview of Research Issues. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19585969.2023.2164841

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