Increased exercise is one of the most beneficial lifestyle changes one can make to improve mental and physical health and to ward-off disease. However, as with most things in life, there are those who exercise in excess to the point of medical, mental, emotional, and social detriment. Although excessive exercise has also been called an obsessive-compulsive behavior, many now believe that this phenomenon may, in fact, be an exercise addiction.
Because exercise is considered a healthy behavior, those who are addicted to it oftentimes receive praise and social acceptance for the behavior. It is not until the myriad of consequence come to light, that the person with exercise addiction and their loved ones fully understand the nature of this insidious and destructive disease.
The compulsive exercise that is common and exhibited in anorexia nervosa is not covered on this page. Exercise addiction shares most of the common symptoms that are seen in drug and alcohol addiction and in other process addictions.
Symptoms of Exercise Addiction
- Tolerance – The need to increase the amount or intensity of exercise to get the same effect.
- Withdrawal – The irritability, poor self-esteem, anxiety, restlessness, and general dysphoria that occurs when an exercise addict suddenly stops or is unable to exercise.
- Social Impairment – Relationships, work, and leisure activities suffer as the exercise addict focuses more and more on his/her addiction.
- Increased Timer – A person who is addicted to exercise spends a significant amount of time thinking about and planning exercise and participating in exercise.
- Inability To Stop Or Cut Down – One with an exercise addiction exercises more intensely or for longer periods than intended and is unable to stop exercising or to cut down on exercise on his/her own, despite negative social, medical, emotional, psychiatric, or other problems.
- Unhealthy Appearance – Exercise addicts oftentimes continue to exercise despite the negative effects on their external physical appearance.
Since exercise produces endorphins (morphine-like molecules produced naturally by the body), one of the rewards of excessive exercise is the creation of pleasurable sensations and euphoria. In primary exercise addiction, this increase in endorphins is the sought-after effect, though this is oftentimes not known by the exerciser.
For those who are uncomfortable with their weight, body image, or have poor self-esteem, a secondary exercise addiction may occur. This can frequently happen in anorexia and bulimia nervosa. These exercise addicts have a preoccupation with their body weight, size, and shape. Many of these also have distorted perceptions of beauty and health and may use exercise and an eating disorder to foster a false sense of self control, or being in control, perfectionism, and rules following.
Those with an exercise addiction will continue to exercise despite medical problems, emotional disturbances created by exercise, the loss of important relationships, and poor work performance. Many of those who become addicted to exercise are also addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, or other behaviors.
It is important to remember that when one suffers from an exercise addiction, the time spent on the addiction may not be simply related to exercise. The time spent obsessing over, talking or reading about, and purchasing items related to exercising all fuel the addiction. When the exercise addict is unable to think about exercise, exercise, or to plan an upcoming exercise session, they may become very irritable, dysphoric, aggressive, have mood swings, or simply “shut down”.
It is not uncommon for an exercise addition to go unnoticed until a coexisting drug addiction, alcoholism, or another mental health disorder is treated. Therefore, it is key to treat all disorders simultaneously in a dual-diagnosis treatment center.
If you or a loved one this in the throes of an exercise addiction, it is important to seek help for this potentially fatal disorder, before more harm is done. The Addiction Specialists at the National Addiction Institute can answer your questions and help you find the resources you need.