What is exercise addiction
Exercise addiction is a chronic mental health disorder that affects relationships, work, psychological and medical health. It can cause several psychological and physical health problems, leading to reduced productivity, distress, and impaired quality of life.
Why do people who suffer from exercise addiction compulsively exercise?
In many instances, those with exercise addiction have a strong need for control in their lives. Their mind tells them that the only thing they can control is how often they work out and that it’s the only way to feel good.
Exercise addiction can be associated with impulsivity, risk-taking behavior, and poor decision-making, developing into exercising excessively, despite injury or illness.
Diagnosing exercise addiction
Exercise addiction can be challenging to diagnose as exercising is a highly individualized behavior, with the intensity and frequency of workouts greatly varying from person to person. Diagnosis of exercise addiction must be made on a case-by-case basis, as there is not a standardized model for a safe number of workouts per day or week.
Qualified health professionals use several tools to help them diagnose exercise addiction. The primary tool is a comprehensive psychological evaluation, which includes assessing the patient's overall physical and mental health. Diagnosis may also involve an evaluation of the patient's relationship with their exercise habits.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies exercise addiction as a behavioral addiction. (1) The DSM-5 recognizes exercise addiction in an individual when:
- Exercise has become obsessive
- Exercise has become compulsive
- Exercise causes dysfunction in a person's life
However, many professionals still find it hard to make an official diagnosis, which is why they will often use the criteria for substance dependence to determine if the individual is addicted to exercise.
To diagnose a person with exercise addiction, your medical team may run through the following criteria:
- Exercise tolerance levels
- Withdrawal symptoms from reduced exercise
- Lack of control around when to exercise
- Intention effects
- Time spent on exercising
- Reduction in other activities
- Continuance despite health risks or injury
- Disruption in personal or professional life related to the need to exercise
Signs & symptoms of exercise addiction
Individuals who are addicted to exercise may experience these symptoms:
- Preoccupation with exercising, often to the exclusion of other activities
- A strong desire to exercise
- Difficulty in cutting back or stopping exercising
- Feeling guilty or shameful about not exercising
- Feeling irritable or anxious when you don't exercise
- Lying about how much you exercise
Effects of exercise addiction
An addiction to exercise can be a serious problem. The harmful effects of this addiction may include emotional distress, depression, anxiety, and even additional health disorders. It can also take away from focus or put pressure on relationships, education, and employment.
Some of the most common short-term effects associated with exercise addiction include:
- Soreness of muscles
- Dehydration (if not hydrating adequately)
- Trouble sleeping
When it comes to the long-term effects of exercise addiction, many people experience:
- Sleep disruption
- Memory problems
- Muscle atrophy
- Lack of focus
- Inability to concentrate
- Social isolation
- Eating disorders
- Osteopenia (loss of bone mass)
- Osteoporosis (weakening of bones)
- Hormonal changes
- Irregular menses
The female athlete triad 8 is a lesser known disorder involving exercise and disordered eating. Someone with the female athlete triad will experience:
- Osteoporosis: loss of bone density, and strength
- Amenorrhea: absent or infrequent menses
- Disordered eating: restrictive eating episodes
Female athletes with this eating disorder may encounter issues with injury or fractures due to osteoporosis and psychological and physical health side effects of disordered eating. This eating disorder exists in the athletic community due to pressure from coaches, teammates, family members, and even the athlete themselves to hit certain goals, or weights, at all costs.
Exercise addiction is one that often co-occurs with other mental and behavioral conditions, including:
- Eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Muscle dysmorphia
- Body dysmorphia
Treating co-occurring conditions alongside exercise addiction will improve chances of recovery, as the symptoms often intertwine with one another. For instance, a patient may have body dysmorphia (a mental health disorder where you obsessively think about one or more perceived defects/flaws in your appearance)7 and believe that their thighs are too large. To compensate, the individual may go running multiple times a day to try and lose the extra weight they believe they have.
Without the proper treatment for underlying body dysmorphia, people with exercise addiction may relapse even after attending a treatment program.
Treatment of exercise addiction
Treatment for addiction to exercise can be long and challenging. When a patient goes without exercising, they can undergo what is called exercise withdrawal, (6) which presents symptoms such as:
- Lack of focus
Therapies for exercise addiction
When it comes to treating exercise addiction, the most common form of treatment is therapy. Since this exercise addiction is a behavioral addiction, treatment must focus on the individual as a whole to understand how their behavior affects their lives and the lives of those around them. Some of the most common types of therapy include:
- Group therapy: This helps to build support and accountability
- Interpersonal therapy: This involves active communication with others, often in a safe environment
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Helps to identify the patterns of behavior, thoughts, and emotions that are behind the problem
- Motivational interviewing: A method for encouraging someone to make changes in their behavior
- Dialectical behavioral therapy: Utilizes conflict resolution and insight to address deeply rooted emotional issues
Medications for exercise addiction
At this time, there are no approved medications that specifically target exercise addiction. If you are struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, then you may want to speak with your medical team about possible treatment options.
Understanding exercise addiction
It is critical to understand that there is a difference between healthy movement and exercise addiction.
People who exercise regularly are not necessarily addicted, as they may simply love to exercise and see it as a way of living a balanced, active life. Exercise can also be a healthy coping mechanism for those suffering from a wide array of mental health conditions, when done safely, and in moderation.
However, exercise becomes an addiction when it begins to consume too much of a person's time, energy, and attention, at the cost of their wellbeing.
Living with exercise addiction
Exercise addiction is not a new phenomenon, but it is a growing one. Individuals living with the condition often express significant distress, guilt, and shame, over their actions.
People living with exercise addiction often feel constant negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, and a sense of dread. They may have a hard time focusing and may feel sluggish and exhausted.
People who are addicted to exercise may have a difficult time controlling their behavior, which can cause problematic patterns to develop. They may exercise while feeling sick or injured, or exercise in the middle of the night when they are supposed to be sleeping.
Research has shown that this obsession with exercise has led to an increase in individuals struggling with various eating disorders. One study showed that 60.2% of individuals stated that they not only had an eating disorder but suffered from exercise addiction as well. (5)
In order to recover from exercise addiction, you must work with a team who understands the condition from a medical basis, and as well as the importance of exposure to eating without compensatory behaviors of movement.
If you are coping with exercise addiction, it can be helpful to ensure that you surround yourself with those who love and support you. This support group may include your family, friends, and even colleagues.
You may also want to seek additional treatment. In some cases, it is recommended to seek treatment for exercise addiction from a specialized center or clinic.
History of exercise addiction
Exercise addiction wasn't officially added to the DSM until its update in 2000 and is now available under behavioral addictions along with other conditions like gambling addiction and sex addiction. (4)
Since that time, there has been much research and work to understand the condition and try to find answers. This research includes studies into:
- How exercise addiction shares similarities with substance use
- The risk factors and triggers of exercise addiction
- What happens to those with addiction to exercise
Despite such attention, the topic still needs extensive review.
Exercise addiction in pop culture
Pop culture has played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the impacts of exercise addiction. Some examples include an episode of Family Guy where the family dog becomes obsessed with running to the point of near starvation (Season 13 Ep.2), and the MTV True Life episode “I’m Addicted to Exercise” (Season 17, Ep. 20).
Social media, television commercials, and reality TV series are often riddled with the glorification of exercising and being your best self. As a result, it has led to several misconceptions about what comprises a healthy exercise regime. It’s not very often that you hear about over-exercising or exercise addiction, so many people are not aware of the condition and just how severe it can be.
How to help someone with exercise addiction
Although exercise addiction can be a challenging issue, it is essential that you try to support and encourage someone struggling with this condition. You can do so by:
- Listening to them when they share their concerns about their body or lack of exercise
- Helping them find other fun and relaxing activities to partake in besides exercise
- Letting them know you are there for them
- Helping them find proper treatment or support
Within Health strives to help cure all forms of eating disorders with our clinically-superior care. If you or a loved one are struggling with exercise addiction, help is only a phone call away. Call our admissions team to ease your suffering.