Exercise in moderation can be a key component in maintaining mental and physical well-being. However, when an individual starts to exercise compulsively, obsess over physical fitness, exercise in secret, or work out when it’s causing pain, they could be experiencing an exercise addiction. People with exercise addiction put their physical and mental health at serious risk. Inadequate rest between training sessions may lead to an increased risk of injury, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. When exercise addiction co-occurs with disordered eating, it increases the chances of malnutrition (1). Exercise addiction has many causes. Someone can develop exercise addiction due to a myriad of biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.
Exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters, endorphins and dopamine, which elicit a reward response, similar to the effect of opioids. The positive effects of physical exercise include stress relief, mood elevation, and reduction in the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
When a person stops working out, the “feel good” effects of exercise wear off, and some may experience withdrawal-like symptoms, like irritability and restlessness. This may cause a person to seek out exercise again.
Excessive exercise leads to an increased tolerance to these neurotransmitters, which may result in an individual exercising even more to chase the “high” of the chemical release. (2)
Research indicates that people with addictive personalities, such as those with existing alcohol or drug addiction, are much more likely to develop an exercise addiction. This may be to fill the void left by a previous addiction.
esearch speculates that 15% of people addicted to exercise are also addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, or recreational drugs. (3) Plus, approximately 25% of individuals addicted to exercise have other addictions, such as a shopping or sex addiction. (4)
Eating disorders and exercise addiction have a lot of symptoms in common. A recent study has discovered that the prevalence of exercise addiction is four times higher in those showing signs of an eating disorder, compared to the general population. (5)
This could be because excessive exercise is known to be a compensatory behavior in eating disorders used to prevent weight gain, along with misuse of laxatives and diuretics, and purging. (6)
The prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is believed to be around 3%. (7) But certain groups are more at risk of exercise addiction, particularly those who have an interest in health and fitness. (8) For example, research demonstrates:
Muscle dysmorphia, also known as megarexia, is a form of body dysmorphia, which is characterized by beliefs of having insufficient muscles. This can lead to the engagement of excessive muscle-building workouts, such as weightlifting and taking anabolic steroids.
Although the literature reports cases of muscle dysmorphia mostly in males, women can also develop the disorder, thanks to a changing Western female body ideal to “strong is the new skinny.” (9)
Research has discovered that individuals who score highly on an exercise addiction test also have high scores on an OCD test, when compared to non exercisers. (9)
Compulsive exercise has similarities to the behaviors seen in those with OCD, as in obsessions triggered by certain stimuli and distress if these compulsions can’t be maintained. For example, craving a certain exercise in response to social pressure for the perfect body ideal and feeling frustrated or low if they’re unable to exercise. (9)
Exercise addiction tends to be more prevalent in those with certain personality traits that are believed to play a role in the onset and maintenance of the condition. These include: (9)
Pressure from society to have the perfect body may drive a person to exercise compulsively to achieve an unrealistic body standard, which results in more negative emotions and low self-esteem. (9)
Recent research has found that technology designed to help people increase their fitness levels is pushing endurance athletes into exercise addiction. (10) The study found that 4.6% of the variance in risk of exercise addiction was due to the use of fitness technology, especially trackers and social media.
At-risk athletes seek out online communities associated with fitness technology to combat the loneliness of their training. However, this allows them to compare themselves with other athletes, which may result in them feeling pressure to match up.
Furthermore, individuals can become fixated by the data from their fitness wearables, driving them to go beyond their original goals.
The goal of treating exercise addiction may not be to get the patient to abstain from working out altogether but to return to moderate exercise. In some cases, a different exercise may be recommended to a patient, to help break the addiction. (9)
The most common form of treatment for exercise addiction is therapy to understand the triggers for their addiction and how it is negatively affecting their lives. Types of therapy for exercise addiction include:
Treating co-occurring disorders, such as disordered eating behaviors and body dysmorphia, will improve the chances of recovery from exercise addiction, as these symptoms often overlap and interact. Without proper treatment for these co-occurring conditions, people may relapse following a program for exercise addiction.
Seeking help for exercise addiction is difficult, and can result in withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and irritability. Each individual will need support, compassion, and empathy and a safe space where they can discuss their concerns without fear of judgment.