Exercise has long been considered one of the most effective strategies to care for and maintain your mental and physical health. For many people, a trip to the gym, playing a sport, or going for a run are all great ways to relieve stress, reflect, unwind, and maintain a daily routine. However, for some people, the habit can become more than part of their daily routine. When the body undergoes intense or prolonged periods of physical exertion without proper rest and nutrition, an exercise addiction can be dangerous.
What is Exercise Addiction?
Exercise addiction is primarily considered a behavioral addiction, which affects the brain similarly to drug addiction. Like drug addiction, behavioral addiction develops through repeated behavior that causes the brain to crave the activity again, until the behavior becomes compulsive for the individual.
While someone struggling with a substance addiction may depend on drugs or alcohol, someone with a behavioral addiction may find themselves addicted to a particular activity, such as exercising. However, exercise addiction has yet to be recognized as a formal mental disorder by the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) due to limited research on the condition.
The definition of “too much” exercise varies from person to person, and because everyone’s body has different needs, an exercise addiction may look different from one person to the next. However, there are a handful of general symptoms to look for regarding exercise addiction:
- You pick up extra workouts when you’ve eaten a “cheat” meal or skip meals if you miss a workout.
- You feel anxious or irritable after missing a workout.
- You neglect relationships with family, friends, children, spouses, etc., to exercise or go to the gym.
- You neglect responsibilities, whether familial, professional, or academic.
- You continue to exercise while sick or injured.
- You feel constant fatigue or soreness due to working out.
- You cancel plans to accommodate your workout routine.
- You consistently extend workouts or exercise for long periods.
- You obsess over certain body parts or specific exercises.
- You no longer view exercise as fun or enjoyable.
- Your mood and outlook are defined by your physical appearance and quality of exercise time.
Body Image Issues and Eating Disorder Risks
Oftentimes, an individual may start working out to manage their physical appearance or target parts of their body they want to change. While it’s not abnormal to not be happy with parts or your appearance, excessive exercise as a means of controlling the way others perceive you has implications beyond exercise addiction. Over time, these attitudes and behaviors can distort your self-image and opinion of how you look, causing body dysmorphia.
Exercise addiction is equivalent to an unhealthy relationship with working out. This relationship can cause a person to equate their body image and self-esteem with their exercise regimen, leading to eating disorders for some. Research shows a strong correlation between anorexia and bulimia patients and excessive exercise, and nearly half of those with eating disorders also have an exercise addiction. On top of that, over one-third of people with an eating disorder are also addicted to alcohol.
Substance Use Risks
Experts have expressed concern that exercise addiction may prompt substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. For example, some people may use stimulants like Adderall to push through feelings of fatigue for a workout; others may resort to illegal uppers like cocaine. Working out or exercising while under the influence of stimulants like these can pose not just health risks, but safety risks as well.
Alternatively, those recovering from a substance use addiction are at a higher risk for exercise addiction. It’s common for people in recovery to exercise as a way to cope with their triggers, add structure to their lives, and stay busy. However, some recovering addicts might fill the void of a substance by using exercise to induce a dopamine rush or endorphin release.
Diagnosing and Treating Exercise Addiction
The only current assessment for exercise addiction is the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI). Despite the condition lacking a formal DSM-5 classification, individuals who may be dealing with an exercise addiction can complete a self-assessment on the EAI website to determine whether they have the condition.
Rehabilitation is not the typical avenue for treating exercise addiction. More common forms of treatment for exercise addiction include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectal Behavioral Therapy. These forms of psychotherapy help patients reflect and talk their way through the reasons behind their addictions and can offer patients skills and strategies to avoid and cope with their triggers.
Medication-assisted therapy is not typically involved in exercise addiction treatment. However, receiving treatment and therapy for exercise addiction may also include diagnosis and treatment for underlying mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.
Countless experts in the medical field have praised the health benefits of exercising. However, it’s crucial to recognize that even beneficial habits can turn into harmful obsessions. Exercise addiction, while not yet officially classified as a mental disorder, poses genuine risks to individuals’ physical and mental health. The symptoms and consequences outlined in this article serve as important warning signs.