Exercise addiction might not seem like a bad thing when compared against some other habits. But, like all addictions, it starts to become a problem when we feel out of control of it.
The phrase “exercise addiction” was first coined by Dr. William Glasser in 1976. He noted that many long distance runners experienced low moods when they couldn’t exercise. He then realised that exercise could be a positive addiction only up to the point that it increases physical and psychological well-being. When exercise starts to override everything, and a day away from the gym, road or pool causes distress, it stops improving the person’s life and instead become maladaptive i.e. causes more problems. Exercise is then termed a negative addiction.
Since then, two types of negative exercise dependency have been defined:
Secondary exercise dependency – this is the most common. The compulsion to exercise is driven by the need to control your body shape, such as increasing muscle mass or losing weight, and may be accompanied by an eating disorder.
Primary exercise dependency - concerns over body image aren’t so key here. Instead, the buzz from exercise is what people crave. Akin to drug-like dependency, people exercise in order to experience a chemical high which occurs when they do the activity. When we exercise intensely, we activate the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. This cocktail of chemicals produces a euphoria that we can begin to crave, and exercise becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (e.g. to get fit).
Signs of exercise addiction
Distinguishing between healthy regular exercise and exercise addiction is essential. Simply enjoying exercise doesn’t mean you’re addicted. Nor does looking forward to your workouts because you enjoy the glow, or because you overate at lunchtime.
Generally speaking, you are addicted to exercise if you work out at very intense or frequent levels which become difficult for you to stop without feeling bad.
If you’re still unsure, ask yourself the questions devised by a psychologist. Lots of yes’s mean you are probably addicted.
One of the strongest signs to look for is that you are always thinking about exercise and are organising your life around your workouts. Some people take extra time off work, skip social occasions, avoid commitments, may dislike exercising with other people and do not like to have their routine disturbed.
Anxiety, fear, guilt, depression and frustration are commonly experienced by addicts who miss a workout. Exercise is therefore considered essential in order to feel okay again. People often become addicted to something if there is an underlying unhappiness. Therefore some people use exercise to block out more long-term feelings such as low self-esteem, stress and grief.
Exercise addiction is often accompanied by other concerns over food and weight. Some people work out excessively in order to control their body fat. In extreme cases this can be linked to anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Exercise addicts may feel the desperate need to work off any high-fat foods they have eaten for fear of putting on weight.
Other possible symptoms of exercise addiction include fatigue due to over-exercising, insomnia, physical damage due to lack of rest, and even muscle waste.
Unlike other addictions, exercise addiction is tricky to diagnose as is so contradictory. Widely promoted as a healthy activity, it is also increasingly recommended as a treatment for mental health issues. Ironically, exercise is even suggested as a replacement for other addiction, such as alcoholism and drug-taking. While exercise undoubtedly benefits most people with mental health issues, there is the possibility that those at risk may substitute one addiction for another, if the underlying issues aren’t dealt with.
Are you at risk?
True exercise addiction is relatively uncommon. People at risk of exercise addiction tend to be those who have also experienced other addictions. Research shows only 8% of gym users are in this category, and that 3% of gym users feel they cannot stop exercising. The people at risk usually have difficulties in other areas of their lives and are using exercise to deal with emotions such as anger, grief, work and relationship stress.
What to do if you suspect you’re addicted
If you are concerned that your exercise routine may be affecting your life negatively, you should take the following steps. Learn to listen to your body so you recognize the signs of overtraining and know when to rest your body. Create a sensible workout calendar and stick to it. A gym instructor will be able to help with this. Overall, remember that the goal isn’t to stop exercising completely, it is just to achieve a healthier balance so you can really enjoy the benefits of exercise again.