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Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

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Exercise addiction hasn’t yet been formally entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),the record of all officially diagnosed mental health conditions. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been identified as a potential disorder.

Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Signs of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction hasn’t yet been formally entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),the record of all officially diagnosed mental health conditions. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been identified as a potential disorder.

Many members of the medical community have likened excessively exercising to other behavioral addiction disorders, some of which—like gambling addiction—have been officially recognized in the DSM. (1) And some studies imply that as many as 3 percent of people who work out regularly may have exercise addiction. (2)

As such, doctors, scientists, and physical and mental health professionals have begun logging the signs and symptoms of exercise addiction to help others learn about and get help for the disorder.

“Signs” of any illness or issue are effects of that illness that can be outwardly measured, including through a medical test or the observation of doctors or family and friends. As a disorder that can take a heavy toll on a person’s body and lifestyle, exercise addiction has a number of measurable signs.

Physical Signs of Exercise Addiction

The physical signs of exercise addiction may be difficult to spot. Exercise tends to strengthen the body and the many internal systems that support it, which can hide more outright signs of trouble.

Still, taking anything to extremes—even healthy behaviors—will eventually lead to imbalance and disruption, which can manifest in a number of physical ways when it comes to exercise addiction.

Physical Tolerance

One of the biggest signs of exercise addiction may also be one of the most difficult to separate from a healthier exercise routine. But physical tolerance still can indicate a potential problem.

Physical tolerance will almost certainly increase as someone becomes addicted to exercise. (1) This could look like someone becoming physically much stronger or being able to endure much longer, harder workouts. (2)

Exercise is a compounding activity, and anyone who does it enough will see these types of changes. But what separates someone struggling with exercise addiction from those who participate recreationally is the desire to get that initial workout “high” back, putting themselves through ever-tougher physical challenges in order to do so. (2)

Chronic Soreness or Injuries

Naturally, increasingly difficult routines will have heavier consequences on the body.

Someone struggling with exercise addiction will likely feel these effects more acutely, due to the intensity of their routines and the reduced likelihood of taking breaks or rest days. The same factors potentially put someone with exercise addiction at higher risk for developing exercise-related injuries, though more research is needed to officially connect these two issues. (3) Examples of damage excessively exercising can do include shin splints, bone fractures, tendon and ligament tears, and muscle swelling. A condition called rhabdomyolysis can result when overworked muscle tissue releases proteins and electrolytes into the blood, causing damage to the heart and kidneys. Rhabdomyolysis can cause permanent disability and even result in death. (4)

Malnutrition

 A number of studies have recorded a relationship between exercise addiction and eating disorders.

In fact, it’s estimated that anywhere from 39-48 percent of people with eating disorders also struggle with exercise addiction. Some studies have shown that, even if the eating disorder is successfully addressed, a person may fail to gain sufficient weight due to continued strenuous exercise. (1)

As such, it’s possible for many people struggling with exercise addiction to also encounter problems caused by malnutrition. These can include brittle bones, fingernails, and hair, fatigue, feeling cold, achy joints, and irritability . Unfortunately, the rigorous physical demands of an exercise addiction can make these problems much worse. (1)

Emotional and Behavioral Signs of Exercise Addiction

Since exercise addiction is oriented around something typically considered healthy, emotional and behavioral signs of the disorder are likewise tricky to differentiate from the actions of a typical health-conscious person. 

Like most forms of addiction, however, the telltale signs appear when the act becomes compulsive in and of itself, or outwardly disruptive to the point where it interferes with daily routines and activities. 

“Obsessive” Exercise Schedule

One of the biggest difficulties in defining exercise addiction is discerning the difference between exercising frequently, as an elite athlete training for the Olympics would, and engaging in legitimately addictive behavior. 

To help draw a starker line, scientists consider exercise addiction to consist of either “impulsive” or “compulsive” behavior. (1) Impulsive behavior is driven only by the desire for reward, with little contemplation of negative impacts—or even little forethought at all. Compulsive behavior, on the other hand, stems more from ritualized actions, with intrusive thoughts of potential negative outcomes should the rituals not be performed.

When it comes to exercise addiction, this type of mindset might manifest as exercising to the point of sickness or injury, or exercising despite sickness or injury. (2) The person struggling with exercise addiction would do anything to keep working out, even if it harms them. 

Lifestyle Disruptions

As a result of the compulsive or impulsive thinking behind it, exercise addiction also has a high potential for disrupting someone’s lifestyle.

This sign of exercise addiction could look like skipping work, school, or social events to exercise; fitting in gym visits extremely late at night or early in the morning, rather than taking a day off; or choosing exercise over otherwise fulfilling relationships. (1)

Someone struggling with exercise addiction also often dedicates huge amounts of time to preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise, and will continue to engage in the activity, despite the negative impacts it might have on their social life and relationships. (1,5)

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Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction can also be marked by a number of telltale symptoms. Unfortunately, these can be even more difficult to discern the signs of exercise addiction, as symptoms represent those effects of an illness or disorder that only the person experiencing them can feel.

Symptoms can range from physical ailments to social struggles. But unless the person divulges what they’re going through, it may be difficult or impossible to tell anything is going on at all.

Physical Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Disorder as physically demanding as exercise addiction can cause many physical symptoms that can’t be outwardly measured but have a negative impact on the person nonetheless.

Exercise Withdrawal

Essentially the equal-and-opposite reaction to building a physical tolerance to exercise is experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when those routines are stopped or cut back.

Like many other behavioral addictions, exercise addiction has strong ties to the brain’s reward center, which kicks off a cascade of feel-good hormones in response to working out. In an addicted person, this type of reaction can eventually become ingrained, and cutting off the source of it—i.e. exercise—can lead to a number of physical symptoms. (6)

Withdrawal from exercise can, therefore, look or feel like many different things, but common reactions include anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, or restlessness when exercise levels are reduced or completely eliminated. (1)

Chronic Exhaustion

Exercise addiction is predicated on workout routines that become increasingly extreme, with little-if-any time set aside for recovery. 

Chronic exhaustion can often crop up as a symptom of exercise addiction, thanks to the perpetual physical push, with little regard for the subsequent rest the body needs. (5)

Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Symptoms of a disorder aren’t only physically felt by the person experiencing them. In many cases, especially with behavioral addiction disorders, the difficulties the person is going through can manifest emotionally or socially, including with exercise addiction.

Inflexible Thinking

A rigid routine, ritual, or system of thought is a common sign across many different types of addiction, and exercise addiction is no exception.

Some studies have found that people struggling with exercise addiction tend to exhibit inflexible thinking when it comes to either their exercise routine itself or the importance of exercising. (3) As with other addictions, this type of rigidity can lead to an unfortunate positive feedback loop, further reinforcing the person’s ideas as their life is changed more to reflect their priorities. (7)

From the outside, this symptom of exercise addiction may look like someone becoming extremely upset or distressed if their routine is interrupted.

Changing Attitudes Towards Exercise

Most likely, a person who ends up struggling with exercise addiction will start out genuinely enjoying exercise.

Indeed, there’s plenty to like about the action, from the physical benefits to the positive reinforcement it elicits, and the body literally agrees. The act of exercising activates the brain’s reward system, sending out feel-good hormones like dopamine in response to a workout. This likely has something to do with the addictive property of exercising in the first place. (3)

But someone with exercise addiction might feel a change of heart once they begin struggling with the disorder. Exercise may start to feel more like a compulsion than something that’s to be enjoyed. And many people struggling with exercise addiction begin to feel anxiety or guilt about not exercising—difficult feelings in and of themselves and issues that can further compound the problem. (1)

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When to Get Help for Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction can be difficult to identify, and even more difficult to convince someone they need help with.

But doctors and scientists have developed a chart that might help others recognize what’s a healthy routine and what might be a step too far. (2)

  • Healthy exercise: The first “tier,” someone practicing healthy exercise is motivated by health. It feels good to exercise. Exercise, in these cases, adds to their quality of life.
  • At-risk exercise: Someone might be considered “at risk” if they use exercise primarily to control their anxiety or other unpleasant moods.
  • Problem exercise: This level of concern is defined by someone who might exhibit continued exercise-induced injuries or schedule their days around exercise.
  • Exercise addiction: The final iteration is when it becomes necessary for someone to exercise in order to avoid guilt or anxiety. Exercise persists despite illness or injury and interferes with daily life functions.

If you think you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of exercise addiction, it’s time to seek help. Within Health provides compassionate care through our virtual treatment programs for exercise addiction. Our clinical care team will work with you on goals, strategies, hopes, and fears around your disordered eating. Call our admissions team now to get started.

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Treatment of Exercise Addiction
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Frequently asked questions

Resources

  1. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. (2011, October). Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction.
  2. Northwestern University. (2018, November). How to Identify an Exercise Addiction and Intervene.
  3. VeryWell Health. (2021, January). The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction.
  4. CDC. (2019). Rhabdomyolysis. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/rhabdo/default.html
  5. VeryWell Health. (2021, December). Exercise Addiction.
  6. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. (2018, January). Exercise Addiction: Preliminary Evidence on the Role of Psychological Inflexibility.
  7. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. (2003, July). The Influence of Self-reported Exercise Addiction on Acute Emotional and Physiological Responses to Brief Exercise Deprivation.
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