Exercise is vital to any weight loss program and for maintaining a healthy body, but at what point does it become an unhealthy problem and potential addiction?
Eating right and getting regular exercise are known to be vital to any weight loss program. Many people looking to get healthy and lose weight in the New Year will be turning to exercise and healthier foods. But for a small amount of the population, exercise can actually become an addiction. According to Psychology Today, approximately 3 percent of the population suffers from exercise addiction and their strive for physical fitness may actually do more harm than good. Exercise addiction can be described as an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise, and can often be a result of similar disorders like eating and body image disorders. Symptoms of exercise addiction are very similar to symptoms of other addictions, such as “obsessing over the behavior, engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm, engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop, and engaging in the behavior in secret” (source: healthline).
How Does Someone Become Addicted to Exercise?
Exercise addiction can begin with someone who simply has a desire for better physical fitness but can become out of control when they become dependent on it. Individuals who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, or those with body dysmorphic disorder may be more likely to become addicted to exercise as well. Exercise addiction can also be found in distance and endurance athletes such as marathon runners, triathletes and others who run for long miles many days a week. Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which are also known as feel-good hormones. These are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use. An exercise addict feels reward and joy when exercising. When they stop exercising, the neurotransmitters go away. An addict has to exercise more to trigger the chemical release (source: healthline). The need to increase exercise to reach the high leads to an addiction.
Psychology Today explains exercise addiction as the following: “In a nutshell, exercise addiction is an overzealous pursuit of physical activity persisted in despite physical, emotional, and social consequences. Its symptoms are similar to those of any addiction, except the drug of choice in this case is fitness”. They list seven possible symptoms of exercise addiction. Individuals can suffer from any or all symptoms to be considered suffering from addiction, but the more symptoms noticed the higher likelihood of an actual addiction versus an exercise enthusiast:
- Tolerance: Needing more and more of the initial activity to achieve sought-after effects (for example, the “runner’s high” or an endorphin rush).
- Withdrawal: Feelings of anxiety, fatigue, irritability, or other unenjoyable emotional and physical experiences on days when one is unable to workout as planned.
- Intention Effect: Repeatedly exceeding planned-upon limits to the amount of time spent exercising.
- Lack of Control: Experiencing one’s physical activity habits as difficult or impossible to keep at manageable levels.
- Time: Far more time is spent exercising than is recommended by medical or fitness professionals and planning, engaging in, or recovering from physical activity consumes a noticeably large portion of one’s days and weeks.
- Reductions in Other Activities: Social, work-related, and leisure endeavors are sidelined to prioritize fitness—often, to the detriment of one’s emotional and interpersonal wellbeing.
- Continuance: One persists in physical activity despite illness, injury, negative psychological outcomes, or medical advice to taper down or take a break. (Retrieved from: Psychology Today)
How to Tell if Someone is Addicted to Exercise or just an Enthusiast
Ian Cockerill, a sports psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England, puts it very simply; “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives around their exercise” (Retrieved from webmd). If an individual enjoys exercise and seems to work out a lot but doesn’t exhibit any of the seven symptoms above (or maybe just one or two), then he or she is likely an enthusiast or avid exerciser and not necessarily addicted to exercise. Once behavior is exhibited similar to addictions of other forms (i.e. drugs, alcohol or eating disorders), then the individual is more likely suffering from an exercise addiction. Exercise addiction is not only dangerous mentally but can also be dangerous physically–as exercise increases so does the risk of injury. Many exercise addicts will continue to work out during injury or illness which sets them up for dangerous long term physical effects.
How to Overcome Exercise Addiction
Currently, exercise addiction is not a classifiable mental illness that can be diagnosed or treated with medication. Additionally, many individuals who suffer from exercise addiction don’t see it as an addiction because it is perceived as a healthy behavior. But even healthy behaviors can be taken overboard and become potentially damaging or unhealthy if they become an addiction. If an individual is suffering from an exercise addiction, most experts recommend self control as a means to help overcome exercise addiction. It is possible that an individual will need to take a break from exercise (temporarily) to help get control over the urges to exercise and the feelings of needing to excessively exercise each day.
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