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Exercise Addiction Effects
While exercise is generally considered good for overall health, exercise addicts take their exercise habits to harmful extremes. The occasional injury from exercise is common enough, but exercise addiction can cause serious and sometimes permanent injuries.
In addition to physical effects, exercise addiction can also have severe mental effects if left untreated. Understanding these physical and mental effects is essential to identifying and treating exercise addiction.
Short-Term Effects of Exercise Addiction
Even in the early stages of exercise addiction, the physical and mental effects on the body can be serious. The effects may even worsen for addicts suffering from chronic health conditions or eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
Short-Term Effects on the Body
People with exercise addiction often engage in compulsive exercise, meaning they struggle to stop themselves from exercising for long amounts of time or ignore health programs in favor of working out.
Addicts crave the release of dopamine and endorphins, which provide feelings of pleasure and reward. As addicts engage in excessive exercise or physical activity, their bodies may struggle to keep up with the physical demands.
Common short-term physical effects of exercise addiction include:
- Extreme weight loss
- Joint inflammation
- Sprained ligaments
- Stress fractures and pressure sores
- Weakened immune system
- Chronic exhaustion
- Sleep issues
- Failing to fully recover or heal from injuries, illness, or other health problems
Short-Term Emotional and Mental Effects
Many exercise addicts seek regular exercise to achieve goals like weight loss or muscle gain. Others, however, may exercise for reasons related to body image, low self-esteem, or eating disorders.
While research has shown that healthy exercise helps with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, excessive exercise can also have the opposite effect on these symptoms.
If the addict experiences withdrawal symptoms when not exercising, depression and anxiety can even worsen.
Common short-term mental effects of exercise addiction include:
- Social isolation
- Depression and anxiety
- Irritability and mood swings
- Relationship issues due to obsessive exercise behaviors
- Becoming fixated on receiving compliments or validation on physical changes like weight loss or muscle gain
- Basing self-worth on the results of exercise, such as losing weight or appearing stronger
- Using risky substances or supplements for enhancement, like steroids and stimulants, or questionable pre and post-workout powders, pills, or injections
- Restricting foods or overeating to achieve certain physical results
Long-Term Effects of Exercise Addiction
As exercise addiction takes over a person’s life, they may lose control over how much they work out. No matter what injuries or illnesses they experience, addicts often fail to reduce the amount of exercise, even if it’s clear they are causing long-term damage to their bodies.
Long-Term Effects on the Body
If untreated, exercise addicts can easily run their bodies into the ground and cause permanent damage to their bones, muscles, tendons, and internal organs. Without ample time to recover, the body cannot heal physical damage nor fight illness or infection.
Common long-term physical effects of exercise addiction include:
- Permanent muscle and joint damage, potentially causing paralysis or loss of mobility
- Scarring on the heart muscles
- Damage to the digestive system due to extreme weight loss
- Chronic pain
- Menstrual disturbances and period loss
- Repeated stress fractures
- Nerve damage
- Bone loss and muscle wasting
- Adrenal exhaustion
Long-Term Emotional and Mental Effects
Exercise addiction doesn’t only endanger physical health; long-term exercise addiction can also have serious negative consequences on the addict’s emotional and mental well-being.
Perhaps the biggest effect is a higher risk of developing eating disorders. Addicts may grow frustrated over a lack of physical results from overexercising, thus turning to restrictive or dangerous diets to achieve results.
Common long-term mental effects of exercise addiction include:
- Risk of developing eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder
- Risk of developing body image disorders like body dysmorphic disorder
- Risk of developing substance use disorders or engaging in drug use to cope with negative consequences of excessive exercise
- Distorted view of body image or overall well-being
- Losing close relationships
- Hallucinations or delusions due to exhaustion, dehydration, or worsened co-occurring disorders.
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
What Makes Exercise Potentially Addictive?
Several factors make exercise potentially addictive, the biggest of which is the release of feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine.
The more these neurotransmitters are activated and flood the brain with feelings of pleasure and reward, the more dependent the brain becomes on their presence.
In general, exercise is seen as a healthy and essential activity, leading many to believe that more is better.
However, the fitness industry has cultivated a sometimes cult-like environment where misinformation, unhealthy diets, and unsafe workouts can thrive, keeping exercise addicts deep in their behavioral addictions.
For many people who are recovering from substance abuse, exercise is part of their treatment plan. Unfortunately, some addicts will simply replace their drug addiction with an exercise addiction without realizing it.
Exercise Addiction VS Exercise Dependence
Addiction is a disease where an individual feels the uncontrollable desire to engage in the behavior, even if they know the behavior is ultimately harmful. In the case of exercise addiction, there is a strong compulsion to exercise to keep feeling the same “high” over and over.
On the other hand, dependence refers to the brain’s dependence on releasing chemicals that cause pleasure, reward, and stress relief.
Therefore, the person has developed a dependence on these feel-good chemicals and may have withdrawal symptoms when not exercising.
A person with exercise dependence may not develop an exercise addiction, but many exercise addicts may develop a reliance on dopamine and endorphins.
Exercise Addiction and Other Behavioral Health Concerns
While exercise addiction is not officially listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), healthcare providers regularly identify signs of exercise addiction and high rates of comorbidity with other mental health conditions.
Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
Exercise addiction and eating disorders very often co-occur. In some cases, the eating disorder starts first, and patients develop exercise addiction as part of their eating disorder to lose weight.
In other cases, exercise addiction comes first, and the eating disorder follows due to body image issues.
Having an eating disorder already puts individuals at risk for many physical health effects like:
- Bone and muscle loss
- Heart and brain damage
- Heart attack
Combined with exercise addiction, these conditions can worsen significantly.
Both eating disorders and exercise addiction also have negative consequences for mental health as well.
The combined mental health effects of both conditions include:
- Low self-esteem
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Suicidal ideation
Exercise Addiction and Substance Abuse
Many individuals in recovery from substance use disorders find themselves trading one addiction for another through exercise.
Healthcare providers often recommend exercise to help combat substance withdrawals, manage cravings, and help with depression or anxiety.
However, because addiction is a brain disease where the patient cannot regulate urges or addictive behaviors, some addicts fall into the same behavior patterns with exercise.
This “trading” of addictions sometimes goes unnoticed due to the positive image around exercise.
Often, exercise addiction can worsen the negative physical and mental effects addicts already experience from substance abuse. The damage to bones, muscles, tendons, and organs caused by excessive exercise may hit recovering addicts even harder.
If recovering addicts already struggle with depression and anxiety, exercise addiction may improve their symptoms but ultimately worsen them as the mental effects of exercise addiction set in.
Effects of Exercise Addiction Withdrawal
Exercise addiction withdrawal occurs due to the brain’s dependence on releasing feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. If the brain becomes used to receiving these chemicals every day or multiple times a day, it may struggle to function normally without them.
The addict may feel compelled to exercise even more when withdrawal symptoms occur because exercising again gives the dependent brain what it wants and usually resolves withdrawal symptoms.
Ultimately, this cycle of withdrawal and relapse keeps the person addicted, making it harder for them to quit independently without intervention from a doctor or loved one.
Exercise Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms of exercise addiction may vary from person to person, especially if they have a history of substance addiction.
Common symptoms of withdrawal from exercise addiction include:
- Sleep problems
- Anxiety and depression
- Loss of appetite
- Intense feelings of guilt
- Muscle aches (not caused by exercise)
Finding Treatment for Exercise Addiction
If you suspect that you or one of your friends or family members has an exercise addiction, health professionals are ready to help. Although inpatient rehab is rarely necessary to treat exercise addiction, therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy have proven highly effective.
To get started, you can ask your doctor about addiction treatment options available to you. If you don’t have a doctor, try SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or 1-877-726-4727 (HELP) to learn what providers accept patients in your area.