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Indicators of Exercise Addiction
Exercise is important for overall health, but some people can take healthy exercise too far. For people at risk of exercise addiction, a simple workout can lead to compulsive and addictive behaviors due to how exercise affects the brain.
By understanding the warning signs and prevalence of behavioral addictions like exercise addiction, we can better identify unhealthy exercise behaviors and provide treatment before destructive symptoms can cause permanent damage.
Top 8 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction
While fitness and exercise are massive industries that aim to help improve overall health and strength, some people can take the practice to an unhealthy extreme. Understanding the fine line between exercise enthusiasts and exercise addiction requires a firm understanding of the warning signs.
Exercise addiction is not officially listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition). However, the condition is commonly diagnosed and treated by health professionals under the umbrella of behavioral addictions, like gambling addiction or shopping addiction.
The leading cause of exercise addiction is the brain’s dependence on the dopamine and endorphins released during exercise. Dopamine is related to pleasure, while endorphins can relieve pain and stress. While beneficial in small doses, people can become dependent on these effects, forming an addiction.
1. Building Your Whole Schedule Around Exercise
There is nothing inherently wrong with planning exercise into your daily routine, but exercise addicts take this planning to an extreme level. Every part of their day may revolve around exercise or preparing for exercise, causing the addict to neglect other tasks or obligations in favor of working out.
For example, an exercise addict may be late or even miss work completely in favor of compulsive exercise instead. Or they may cancel or fail to attend events with loved ones or miss important opportunities due to preparing for and engaging in excessive exercise.
2. Working Out Even When You’re Sick or Injured
When non-addicts recover from an injury or get sick, exercise is usually the last thing on their mind. After all, the body is already weakened, and intense physical activity usually worsens or slows down the healing process.
However, exercise addicts usually struggle to take a break from exercise to heal, even if they know that working out will worsen their condition. Their compulsive behavior around exercising overrides logic or advice from others, leading to worsened overall health and recurring or unresolved injuries.
3. You Can’t Stop Thinking About Exercise
Even when they are not physically active, addicts may be obsessing over and planning for each exercise session. Of course, planning workouts isn’t inherently bad. However, exercise addicts often become preoccupied or even anxious about the small or inconsequential details.
For example, exercise addicts may obsess over every aspect of working out, no matter how small: planning time and location, the form of exercise, the amount of weights used, what clothes they’ll wear, what music they’ll listen to, etc.
For many addicts, this preoccupation can cause them to neglect relationships with friends and family, affect work or school performance, or cause general distress if they are distracted from their obsession.
4. Putting Exercise Before Important Events or Obligations
Typically, some things in life take higher priority than others—an interview for your dream job should be more important than a casual dinner with friends. But for exercise addicts, these priorities become very distorted, sometimes without the addict realizing it.
Exercise addicts often feel their workout session is more important than going to a loved one’s dance recital, which can cause conflict in that relationship. To the loved one, the choice seems obvious, but the addict may experience real distress from skipping or rescheduling their exercise.
5. Being Unable to Cut Down on Exercise, Even if You Want To
As exercise addiction worsens and begins to cause repeated injuries or health issues, addicts may try to reduce the amount of exercise they engage in. However, once the brain becomes dependent on the release of dopamine and endorphins, the cravings can override logic.
Many addicts struggle to reduce exercise or take days off, even if they know they should or really want to. Failing to cut back or stop exercising can cause the addict to feel out of control or that they are a failure.
6. Exercising to the Point of Injury
Exercise and the release of dopamine and endorphins can lead to a sort of “high”—in fact, there’s a reason “runner’s high” or “workout high” are common terms referenced in the fitness community. The brain becomes flooded with “feel good” chemicals, which can override logic or good judgment.
As the addict continues exercising to chase that high, they stop focusing on safe techniques or listening to their body to stay aware of their physical limits. At this point, addicts are at risk for serious injury without even realizing it.
7. Feeling Withdrawal Symptoms When Not Exercising
Although exercise addiction is a behavioral issue, addicts can still experience withdrawal symptoms when not working out. These withdrawal symptoms typically occur because the brain has become dependent on releasing dopamine and endorphins.
Unpleasant symptoms can arise without these “feel good” chemicals the brain relies on. Because exercising again often resolves withdrawal symptoms, addicts may find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to cut back but exercising again when symptoms become unbearable.
Common withdrawal symptoms of exercise addiction include:
- Muscle aches (not from working out)
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep issues
8. Lying About or Hiding How Much You Exercise
Whether loved ones have confronted the addict about their exercise problem or to avoid judgment, addicts may go to great lengths to conceal their exercise habits. For example, addicts may hide their gym bags, clothes, or other workout evidence.
Addicts may also lie about how much time they spend at the gym or downplay muscle soreness or injuries. If an addict’s gym membership or workout equipment has been restricted or removed, individuals may work out in private places or during hours when they are unlikely to be discovered.
Risk Factors for Developing an Exercise Addiction
The brain’s dependence on chemicals like dopamine and endorphins is only one part of the exercise addiction puzzle. Issues with body image, weight, and peer pressure also contribute to exercise addiction.
Being an athlete is a very common risk factor for exercise addiction. In fact, according to research from Fielding Graduate University:
- 2 % of endurance athletes show signs of exercise addiction
- 4% of players of ball sports show signs of exercise addiction
- 2 % of fitness center members show signs of exercise addiction
- 4% of participants in power disciplines show signs of exercise addiction
Common risk factors for developing an exercise addiction include:
- Being an athlete, whether as a professional, hobbyist or through school
- Having low self-esteem or body image issues, causing you to obsess over weight loss or muscle gain
- History of addiction or substance use
- Co-occurring eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder
- Co-occurring disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphia, and personality traits such as perfectionism, neuroticism, and narcissism
How Is Exercise Addiction Diagnosed?
Despite not having an official listing in the DSM-5, exercise addiction is commonly diagnosed and treated by healthcare professionals. To receive an exercise addiction diagnosis, you must first be assessed by a trained mental healthcare professional.
Assessments and Self-Testing
Your therapist or mental health provider will first conduct an interview to determine how your exercise dependence affects your quality of life. They may also use assessment tools to aid in the diagnosis process.
While getting a professional diagnosis is always preferred, there are self-tests you can take ahead of time to get a better idea of your exercise behavior and dependence.
The most common assessment tools physicians use are the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) and the Expanded Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI-3). Still, you can also find an online version of the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) to take yourself.
What’s the Difference Between a Hobby and an Addiction?
On the surface, exercise as a hobby and exercise addiction can look similar. However, the main difference is whether or not your exercise habits become obsessive, unhealthy, or interfere with your quality of life.
For example, someone who exercises as a hobby can choose to cut down or skip exercise without any distress or withdrawal symptoms. For an exercise addict, reducing or skipping a workout causes distress and/or withdrawal symptoms.
Getting Help for Exercise Addiction
You are not alone if you or someone you love shows the warning signs of exercise addiction. Luckily, there are many treatment options for exercise addiction.
You can start by talking to your doctor about your addictive behaviors and determining the best treatment plan. If you’re unsure where to start, try using SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-877-726-4727 (HELP) to learn what addiction treatment options are near you.