When Exercising Becomes an Addiction

From a young age, we are constantly told the positive effects of exercising. Of course, exercise does have its benefits-- it leads to the production of endorphins, it helps with weight maintenance and/or loss, it increases energy levels, it builds muscles and bone density, it improves sleep quality, and it does much more. However, is there a certain extent to which exercise is beneficial? Exercise is only beneficial if done moderately-- exercise addiction is surely a phenomenon. Exercise addiction refers to the obsession over physical fitness and exercise, and is usually the result of disorders with one’s perception of body image or eating disorders. Like with other types of addiction, exercise addicts may show behaviors such as obsessing over the behavior and continuing to engage in the behavior even when it is harmful.

From a scientific perspective, exercise stimulates the release of endorphins and dopamine, both of which are neurotransmitters that cause the feelings of happiness and reward. These are also the same neurotransmitters that are released when using certain drugs, such as opiates and stimulants. When an addict is no longer exercising, there are less neurotransmitters present, prompting one to engage in more exercise. Symptoms of exercise addiction include withdrawal symptoms after long periods of no exercise, uncontrollable desires to exercise, reducing or cutting out other activities to make time for exercise, or an inability to reduce exercise.

Exercise addiction is considered ego-syntonic, in which one believes that one’s actions are justifiable and correct. This makes it difficult to diagnose exercise addiction, as addicts are likely to not mention their behavior. In addition, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not recognize exercise addiction, making it difficult to ascertain if one truly has it or not. However, this does not mean that it is not a phenomenon-- it is thought to affect twenty five percent of amateur runners and fifty percent of marathon runners (Anderson et al, 1997). Further research has shown that those showing signs of exercise addiction are more likely to display behaviors associated with other types of addiction, such as Internet addiction, work addiction, and compulsive shopping (Lejoyeux et al, 2008, Villella et al, 2011). While the majority of us are not exercise addicts, the implications of their behavior is certainly worth noting.

Self-control is seen as the standard form of treatment for exercise addiction. The first step would be acknowledging that one has an obsession with exercise, and to be willing to make changes to one’s lifestyle and behavior. Instead of completely cutting out exercise from one’s life, it is helpful to start by gradually moderating one’s workouts or switching forms of exercises. Although in some cases, it may be helpful to briefly stop exercising to gain more self-control over the desire to exercise. The types of treatment for exercise addiction is more personalized and based on the individual situation. Similar to other treatments, the amount of time it takes for one to overcome exercise addiction would depend on the severity of the addiction. As for prevention, it is important to take breaks from exercising and set limits on how often and how long one is exercising for. Exercising is healthy and encouraged, only as long as we do not take it to the extreme!





Stephanie Chan