Emotional Health

Exercise Addiction

January 11, 2017   /

Exercise addiction occurs when individuals lose perspective of the purpose of exercise and become obsessed with it, to the exclusion of other activities that they used to enjoy. They often pass up a chance to socialize with others, to sleep, and sometimes to work, just so that they can spend more time exercising. Runners are particularly vulnerable, as are people with perfectionistic tendencies. Many people have questioned whether the release of beta-endorphins during exercise is what leads to the addiction. However, most people now agree that it is most likely caused by underlying psychological conditions, such as extremely low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression. Excessive exercise often is paired with bulimia nervosa and sometimes with anorexia nervosa. Some people with exercise addiction suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or abuse of alcohol, nicotine, or illicit drugs.

Knowing the symptoms of exercise addiction

The following are symptoms of exercise addiction:

  • Exhibiting social isolation
  • Continuing with an exercise regimen during times of illness, injury, or exhaustion
  • Becoming very upset—irritable, anxious, or depressed—when forced to miss exercise
  • Repeating the same exercise routine every day, even going so far as “needing” to use the same machine each time
  • Exercising for at least 2 hours/day, and feeling the need to “double up” the day after a missed routine
  • Needing to “burn off” any food eaten by exercising for a specified amount of time
  • Doing mostly cardiovascular exercise—resistance to strength training is common
  • Wanting to exercise alone, sometimes in the middle of the night, etc, when no one else is around
  • Seeing pain as a sign of doing a “good job” or making progress
  • Keeping meticulous records of time spent exercising, heart rate, etc

Solving the problem

The following recommendations can help individuals with exercise addiction:

  • Find a good counselor
  • Try to work with a certified athletic trainer to help plan routines
  • Stop all exercise for 1 month (recommended by many experts)
  • Follow these tips when it is considered healthful to begin exercising again:
    • Count all exercise—stretching, walking, etc—as part of your time for exercise
    • Have your counselor and trainer help you set the amount of time for exercise, and do not exceed that time
    • Change emphasis from quantity to quality
  • Focus on other hobbies or activities that were likely put aside at the initiation of your addiction
  • Start paying attention to how you feel during physical activity—a major component of healing is learning to pay attention to yourself again

  References and recommended readings

Berczik K, Szabó A, Griffiths MD, et al. Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Subst Use Misuse. 2012;47(4):403-417. doi:10.3109/10826084.2011.639120.

Freimuth M, Moniz S, Kim SR. Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8(10):4069-4081. doi:10.3390/ijerph8104069.

McGough S. Exercise addiction and eating disorders. McLean in the News. July 2004. http://www.mclean.harvard.edu/pdf/news/fitnessmanage0704.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2014.