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Exercise Addiction: Compulsive Exercise Warning Signs

Exercise Addiction: Compulsive Exercise Warning Signs


There are many reasons to exercise more, whether you want to improve your health, increase your fitness, or participate in a social activity, such as a race. You may want to exercise because it simply makes you feel good. While most adults could benefit from more physical activity, it’s also common for exercise to become an addiction that is harmful to your physical and mental health.

Learn more about the signs of exercise addiction, causes and risk factors, and treatment.

Getty Images / Grace Cary


What Is Exercise Addiction?

While exercise addiction has not been accepted as a mental health disorder in the DSM-5, (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition”), researchers describe it as a behavioral addiction, or excessive behavior that results in adverse consequences. Similar to other addictions, a person with the addiction will be aware of the negative impacts of their behavior and consider these consequences, but they proceed with exercise anyways.

Based on the criteria for behavioral addiction, exercise addiction is characterized by:

  • Tolerance: Increasing the amount of exercise to feel the desired effect, be it a “buzz” or a sense of accomplishment.
  • Withdrawal: In the absence of exercise, the person experiences negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problems.
  • Lack of control: Unsuccessful attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising for a certain period.
  • Intention effects: This is when a person is unable to stick to their intended routine. A person may consistently exceed the amount of time they plan on exercising.
  • Time: A great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise.
  • Reduction in other activities: As a direct result of exercise, social, occupational, and/or recreational activities occur less often or are stopped.
  • Continuance: Continuing to exercise despite knowing that this activity creates or exacerbates physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems.

Warning Signs and Prevalence

Some of the warning signs that you may be addicted to exercise include:

  • Feeling guilty or anxious if you do not exercise
  • Exercising even when it is inconvenient or disruptive to your normal schedule
  • Running out of time for other things in your life because you need to exercise
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when you cannot exercise
  • Feeling that exercise isn’t fun or enjoyable anymore
  • Exercising even when you have injuries or when you are sick
  • Skipping work, school, or social events to exercise

How Common Is Exercise Addiction?

Based on available research about exercise addition, it is estimated that close to 3% of the general population in the U.S. may have an exercise addiction. For certain subgroups, such as ultra-marathon runners and sports science students, this figure may be even higher.

Causes and Risk Factors

Exercise addiction develops in four phases:

  • Phase 1 – Recreational exercise: Initially, a person may be motivated to exercise because they want to increase their health and fitness or they may simply find exercise pleasurable. During this initial phase, exercise is enjoyable and improves a person’s quality of life. They generally can stick to their exercise plan, but there are no negative consequences when skipping a workout.
  • Phase 2 -At-risk exercise: In the second phase, a person becomes at-risk for exercise addiction. During this phase, they increase the frequency and intensity of their workouts. Their primary motivation for exercise has shifted from enjoyment to finding relief from stress and dysphoria, or to improve their self-esteem by trying to change their body’s appearance. Exercise is mainly a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings and experiences.
  • Phase 3 – Problematic exercise: Problems begin to emerge during the third phase. A person begins to organize their daily lives around their exercise regimen, which is increasingly rigid. If their choice of exercise used to be a social activity, such as a running group, they begin to do more training on their own. They may begin having mood swings and irritability if their exercise routine is disrupted or they have to exercise less because of an injury. Despite an injury, they may seek other forms of exercise to meet their needs. For example, if they sprained their ankle while running, they may take up weight lifting to compensate while the ankle is healing.
  • Phase 4 – Exercise addiction: In phase four, a person’s life now revolves around exercise. They continue to increase the frequency and intensity of their workouts, which causes disruption to other areas of life. Rather than exercise for enjoyment, the primary goal of exercise is to avoid withdrawal symptoms when they do not exercise.

Some of the risk factors that predict whether a person may become addicted to exercise are biological, such as genetics, or psychological. Psychological risk factors include negative peers, parental drug use, low self-esteem, juvenile delinquency, and low social conformity (they don’t adapt their behaviors and beliefs to fit in with a group).

Related Health Conditions

Some conditions found to be associated with exercise addiction include:

Treatment for Exercise Addiction

Like other behavioral addictions, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing are usually recommended. These techniques work by helping people recognize the adverse effects created by their addiction. Identifying that their behavior is a problem aims to motivate the person to get treatment. Once they are motivated, they can focus their attention on identifying the automatic thoughts related to controlling their body and exercising in an obsessive manner.

Clinicians can also help a person with exercise addiction by creating strategies to help manage their addiction and reward abstinence from or lower levels of exercise.

Summary

Exercise addiction is a condition characterized by exercise behavior that has more negative than positive consequences. Similar to other types of addiction, what begins with good intentions, such as improving your health or decreasing stress, may end up making your life feel completely unmanageable.

While not everyone who exercises may develop exercise addiction, it’s important to know the cause, warning signs, risk factors, and when to seek treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Regular physical activity is great for your health, from reducing the risk of many diseases, improving cognitive function, strengthening bones, and improving sleep, among numerous other benefits. It can also be a great way to be social, have fun, and de-stress. However, when the desire and commitment to exercise become obsessive, compulsive, and even addictive, the negative consequences outweigh the positive.

If you think you may be addicted to exercise, consider speaking with a trusted health professional about how to begin addressing your addiction.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • Is it excessive to work out every day?

    Not necessarily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week along with 2 days of muscle-strengthening activity (such as weight-bearing exercise). This works out to approximately 30 minutes of physical activity each day.


  • What are the physical symptoms of exercising too much?

    Physical symptoms of exercising too much can be decreased performance, feeling fatigued, muscle soreness that takes a long time to go away, needing longer rest periods, and become more prone to injuries. For some women, excessive exercise can cause them to stop having their periods.


  • Can exercising too much impact your mental health?

    When exercise is no longer something you choose to do but something you must do, it can impact your mental health. You may feel guilty or anxious if you do not exercise, skip social events, school, or work in order to exercise, or exercise despite feeling sick or physical injuries.



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