The Dangers Of Exercise Addiction

Physical activity and exercise provides relief from emotional stress and anxiety. However, for some, particularly those with addictive personalities, exercise becomes more than simply physical activity. Exercise addiction, excessive exercise or exercise dependency is an obsession with fitness that sacrifices health, work or relationships. Those addicted to exercise often workout alone so as not to attract the attention of fitness professionals or other participants. An exercise addict typically works out for two or more hours a day, which can interfere with other priorities in his or her life.

The Dangers Of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is often found in combination with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Those suffering from an exercise addiction may also be predisposed to obsessive compulsive disorder and use exercise as a way to tame their compulsiveness.

In the February 2011 edition of “Clinics”, researchers Vladimir Modolo, et al., label people who are addicted to physical activity as those with an “Exercise Dependency,” ED, and show components similar to other types of addictions.

The first component is the feeling of joy or a “high”. It is not the feeling that is a worry. The concern begins when participants exercise solely to obtain that euphoria. Exercise addicts often avoid less intense forms of exercise such as stretching or yoga because they do not feel the same “high” after these types of workouts.

When an addict’s current workout stops resulting in the “high”, he or she increases the intensity, duration or frequency to produce the same feelings. This is the second indication of ED. Similar to other substances, the body builds a tolerance to the current dose of exercise and therefore addicts have to increase the activity. They can exercise at higher heart rates, for longer times or more than once a day.

This overtraining has its own consequences. The following signs indicate that one should take a break from workouts:

  • A noticeable decrease in performance level
  • Increased tiredness and easily fatigued
  • Emotional extremes such as restless and excitability or depression
  • Weight loss
  • Extended recovery time
  • Aches and pains that do not alleviate within a few days
  • Taking pain relievers to “get through” the workout

Similar to the way substance addicts sacrifice time with family and friends, an exercise addict will participate in physical activity instead of social obligations. This third ED symptom may also affect time at work. An addict may go in late if he or she has not performed his or her complete workout, or he or she will leave work early to exercise if the weather is pleasant enough for a run or bikeride.

The final symptom of ED is experiencing feelings of withdrawal in the absence of physical activity. Symptoms to look for are feelings of depression, anxiety or irritability when exercise is not performed. An addict becomes dependent on the exercise to boost his or her mood and feelings of self-worth. Exercise is a mood-enhancer and a stress reducer, but many other things such as music, reading a book, talking with a friend or playing a game can do the same thing.

This intense reaction to exercise does not favor one gender. Modolo, et al. studied 300 male and female athletes at the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil. The objective of the study was to determine if ED occurs more often in males or females. The results, published in the February, 2011 issue of “Clinics”, reported that a similar percentage of men and women experience symptoms of negative exercise addiction, although their reasons for exercise differ. Men exercise for vigor and strength; women exercise to achieve their weight loss goals.

While weight loss goals are a common objective for an exercise program, using exercise for weight control may signal an ED symptom. In the May 2011 edition of “European Eating Disorders Review”, researchers Olwyn Johnston, Jackie Reilly and John Kremer, presented the results of interviews with 32 women at different points along the exercise continuum. The women all had a need to control their body weight and used exercise, instead of an eating disorder, as a more acceptable solution. Successful weight control is a combination of healthy eating and a manageable exercise routine, not exercise to the extreme to burn off all the calories one has eaten throughout the day. Exercise addicts are typically calorie-counters and track every bit of food that enters their mouths.

These results left researchers questioning the relationship between exercise dependency and eating disorders. After Modolo’s research, he also questioned a relationship between excessive exercise and body image disorders. It seems that exercise addiction may exist alone, or in the presence of another disorder. Researchers, Lejoyeux, et al., in the July 2008 issue of “Comprehensive Psychology”, agreed when they reported that people with exercise addiction also have an increased risk of other addictive behaviors such as compulsive buying, bulimia and hypochondria. Overcoming exercise addictions require self-discipline, mental adjustments, accountability to others and professional help.

The first step in overcoming an exercise addiction is to take a break from a workout. List the reasons why a break is needed and post this list in a visible place. In the same way one schedules exercise, schedule in days of rest, which are necessary for muscular recovery. It doesn’t mean having to give up exercise forever, only for one or two days at a time.

Enlist the help of friends and family to keep exercise to a limit. Ask a close friend or relative to be an exercise sponsor to report daily activities to for accountability purposes. If the sponsor does not see the inclusion of one or two days of rest every week, he or she will enforce it. If you would like more information on exercise addiction or think you can benefit from therapy, please contact our facility today to speak to a representative.

Categories: Health & Fitness