What is exercise addiction?
Broadly, exercise addiction—sometimes also called compulsive exercise—is described as an unhealthy obsession with exercise, bodily movement, and/or physical fitness. This can manifest as excessive exercise or thoughts about exercise, but in either case, the issue becomes disruptive to someone’s everyday life.
It can be difficult to distinguish an exercise enthusiast from someone who is considered addicted, but there are some benchmarks commonly used to denote an addiction, whether to exercise or other behaviors, including:3
- Lack of control: Unsuccessful attempts to cut down on or stop the activity over a certain period of time.
- Time: How frequently someone thinks about or performs the activity.
- Reduction in other activities: Cutting down on other activities or responsibilities, including work and school, to make more time for the favored behavior(s).
- Intention effects: Being unable to stick to an intended plan or schedule due to the amount of time dedicated to the activity.
- Continuance: A desire to continue the activity despite understanding or experiencing mental or physical consequences tied to the behavior.
- Tolerance: The need to perform the activity more frequently or intensely to feel the same “buzz” from performing it.
- Withdrawal: Negative consequences, such as increased irritability or anxiety, felt in the absence of the activity.
Despite not explicitly appearing in the DSM, exercise addiction is generally considered a behavioral addiction, where someone becomes fixated on the feelings brought about by certain actions as opposed to developing a physical dependency on certain substances.3
What causes exercise addiction?
There’s a reason people feel drawn to exercise: moving the body tends to feel good. And there’s a reason for that, too.
Exercise releases endorphins, including the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, two chemicals involved in creating a sense of happiness, wellbeing, satisfaction, and pleasure, among other “feel good” sensations.4
These feelings not only help diminish negative emotions, but help bolster positive ones, and that dual effect is at the heart of many addictive behaviors.3 In the case of exercise addiction, the release of these neurotransmitters can help play a role in maintaining or developing the issue.
It’s also possible that some people who struggle with exercise addiction are at a higher risk of developing addictive behaviors in general, with some research indicating up to 20% of people with exercise addiction have a simultaneous addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs. And other research on the subject suggests that up to 25% of people who are addicted to one thing will be addicted to at least one other thing.3
Still, the concept of exercise addiction is relatively new, and more research is needed to determine how it’s developed or maintained.
Who is at risk for exercise addiction?
It’s possible that some groups or people may be at a higher risk for developing exercise addiction than others.
The condition has been closely tied to eating disorders of all types, with one study showing that 60.2% of people with exercise addiction reported struggling with a simultaneous eating disorder.5 This could be related to negative body image issues, which tend to impact people with both conditions.
But people who already participate in sports are at an especially high risk of developing exercise addiction.
Up to 42% of people identifying as professional or elite athletes report having issues with exercise addiction, compared to approximately 3% of the population of regular exercisers.1,2 This may be due to how normative intense movement and exercise is for professional athletes, and the pressure, in many sports, to achieve a certain body type.
Signs & symptoms of exercise addiction
Again, it can be difficult to distinguish an exercise addict from an avid exerciser, and especially from someone who actively participates in sports.
Perhaps the best way to tell the difference is to look at someone’s motivation for exercising. A healthy exerciser, even an avid exerciser, will work out to boost their health and quality of life. Someone who’s addicted, on the other hand, will exercise to avoid feeling guilt, anxiety, or other negative feelings or withdrawal symptoms.6
Some other indications of exercise addiction include:6,7
- Exercising despite illness, injury, or fatigue
- Organizing days around exercise
- Exercising even when it’s inconvenient or disruptive to your schedule
- Exercising even if it no longer feels enjoyable
- Feeling irritable or anxious when not exercising
- Lying about how much you exercise
Eventually, this behavior can have devastating effects, both physical and psychological. Studies have reported people with exercise addiction experiencing personal injuries of all types, along with strain on one’s personal life, including marital issues and trouble at work or school.7 Another look at exercise addiction found that even slight variations to a workout schedule could lead to negative effects on habitual exercisers.9
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for exercise addiction to exist or develop alongside other mental health conditions, including many types of eating disorders, other behavioral addictions, and issues related to body dysmorphia.3,5
One study found that those with eating disorders were 3.5 times more likely to have or develop an exercise addiction. Other looks at the condition have found correlations between exercise addiction and body dysmorphic disorder, as well as social media usage and sexuality.5
In the case where exercise addiction intersects with disordered eating, it can lead to further health complications.
A disorder called the female athlete triad describes a trio of commonly occurring issues that impact women when they experience an eating disorder while frequently exercising. These issues include:8
- Osteoporosis: loss of bone density, and strength
- Amenorrhea: absence of or infrequent menses
- Disordered eating: eating episodes that are abnormal
This combination can be devastating, leading to increased injuries or fractures, along with other physical and mental health concerns.8
Treatment of exercise addiction
As exercise addiction remains an “unofficial” disorder in the DSM, little research has been done on the condition, or on potential treatments.
Most therapeutic approaches to treating the condition have been based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of treatment that has proven effective at helping curb a number of unhelpful behaviors, including all manner of disordered eating.10
If someone is struggling with guilt or anxiety related to exercise addiction or withdrawal, it’s possible that other forms of therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes may also help. Mindfulness meditation, for example, has long been shown to help relieve anxiety, depression, and stress.11
How to help someone with exercise addiction
Exercise addiction can be a challenging issue, both to live with personally and watch a loved one struggle with. If your friend, family member, colleague, or loved one is struggling with this condition, you can help 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
But finding proper treatment is also key. If you or a loved one have an exercise addiction, it’s important to seek out help.
A primary care physician, therapist, psychiatrist, or another trusted medical professional may be able to offer additional support. These experts can help you secure an official diagnosis or seek out further treatment options.
At Within Health, we also strive to help. Our multidisciplinary team works to help with all forms of eating disorders. 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.