Getting the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day has plenty of health benefits, from decreased health risks to improved mood and more. But as the old adage goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing – and exercise is no exception.
In fact, it’s possible to become addicted to exercise. Exercise addiction happens when a person develops a compulsion toward exercise. If you think that you or a loved one may be addicted to exercise, this article will outline everything you need to know about exercise addiction. Read on to learn what exercise addiction is, the signs and symptoms of exercise addiction, who is at risk for exercise addiction and when to seek help.
What Is Exercise Addiction, and What Causes It?
Exercise addiction occurs when a person’s relationship with physical exercise becomes obsessive. Similar to other addictions, behaviors associated with exercise addiction include obsessing over working out, working out in secret, working out to the point of causing physical and mental harm, as well as continuing to engage in the behavior even though they wish to stop doing so.
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Exercise activates the same neurotransmitters in our brains that get activated during drug use. Because exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, it’s possible to get addicted to the “high” we feel after exercising. A person would continue to pursue this feeling by exercising excessively.
Who Is at Risk for Exercise Addiction?
Though it’s possible for anyone to develop an addiction to exercise, certain risk factors have been identified that increase the chance of exercise addiction.
Desire to lose weight and concern regarding appearance. Those who want to dramatically change their appearance through extreme weight loss and who feel obligated to stay in shape due to societal pressure may be at higher risk for weight loss addiction.
Eating and body disorders. Those who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can make a person more susceptible to exercise addiction. Body dysmorphic disorder or body image disorder can also cause a person to become obsessive about workout out.
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History of addiction. It’s estimated that 15% of people with exercise addiction have been or are addicted to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol. In some cases, those who suffer from other addictions may turn to exercise as a way to fill a void left by the absence of addictive substances. This can end up being counterproductive, as they form an addiction to exercise instead.
Difficulty in other areas of life. Those seeking an escape from certain life stressors or looking to fill a void in parts of their lives are more susceptible to exercise addiction. Because exercise feels good and requires complete focus, it’s an addictive escape for some.
Lack of control. If a person lacks agency in other areas of their lives, they may view their physical form as something they can control. This can easily lead to becoming fixated on their physique, which can develop into exercise addiction.
Exercise Addiction vs. Healthy Exercise
The line between healthy exercise and exercise addiction can be hard to spot. Particularly for those who enjoy training for marathons or weightlifting, identifying the difference between spending time engaging in a fun physical activity and addiction can be a challenge. Here are a few characteristics of exercise addiction to keep an eye out for.
Missing a workout negatively impacts their mental state. A person who suffers from exercise addiction may get extremely upset in the event they’re unable to complete a scheduled workout – even if the reason they have to miss it is an important one, such as a work trip or wedding celebration.
Working out is their only source of happiness. People addicted to exercise are often unable to derive happiness from any other area of their lives. Their only source of joy comes from the physical results they’re seeing from working out or from their latest workout stats.
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Exercise negatively impacts relationships. Exercise addiction causes a person to prioritize working out over all else, including the people in their lives. People with exercise addiction often suffer from strained relationships. They will choose to work out over spending time with their partner or skip out on social events to stick to their workout regimen.
They work out despite illness or injuries. Those with exercise addiction will ignore their body’s cues for rest to continue pursuing their physical goals. This can mean working out despite having the flu, fractures or other ailments.
Exercise is used to escape. Exercise becomes a way to escape rather than deal with particular life stressors or events that may be unpleasant to work through.
Workouts often get extended. Working toward a particular goal like training for a marathon can call for multiple workouts per day. However, those with exercise addiction may extend and add to workouts without any objectives in mind and can act on impulse – adding additional reps or miles in.
How Is Exercise Addiction Diagnosed and Treated?
Because exercise addiction isn’t currently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), there’s no specific criteria used to diagnose it. Additionally, those who suffer from exercise addiction usually deny there’s an issue and often don’t seek help professional help.
If a person with exercise addiction does seek help, a doctor may ask questions regarding the frequency of workouts and questions about how the fitness routine impacts other areas, such as social activity. Keeping a journal of workouts may also help a physician diagnose exercise addiction.
Treating exercise addiction heavily relies on the person’s willingness to admit the issue and want to take steps toward changing the behavior. To gradually shift exercising to be a healthy behavior and not a harmful one, a person with exercise addiction may start to moderate workouts and move to different forms of exercise that are less strenuous. Moderating the time spent working out to a healthy amount rather than an obsessive one is another step those with exercise addiction may take.
Exercise addiction occurs when a person becomes obsessed with physical activity – to the point where it negatively impacts other areas of their lives. If you or a loved one starts to exercise obsessively, to the point where it’s negatively affecting their health and social well-being, it may be time to make necessary changes. Slowly cutting back on workout duration, switching up workouts to incorporate less strenuous activity and spending time on other areas of life such as social activity, can all help a person cope with and work through exercise addiction.
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