Admit it—that good feeling after a workout is addicting. Addicting, as in: It feels good enough that you’ll repeat getting sweaty and sore again just for that feeling. But is it an actual addiction, like the ones people develop to alcohol, cigarettes and coffee?
The feeling itself is caused by the release of a brain chemical called dopamine post-workout. Like other pleasurable (and dopamine-releasing) activities such as orgasm or drinking alchohol, a small potential for addiction exists. The New York Times recently addressed exercise addiction in its Room for Debate section. The seven panelists mostly agreed that exercise addiction is largely a non-issue for most people.
David J. Linden, a panelist and neuroscience professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, summed it up by saying the benefits outweigh the risk.
"Aerobic exercise can be genuinely addictive for a select few, but it's mostly an excellent antidepressant and anxiety reducer, and it is by far the single best thing one can do to mitigate the cognitive decline that accompanies normal aging," wrote Linden in his opinion.
The first thing to understand is the difference between the word addiction in everyday language and its use in behavioral science. “I’m addicted to a good workout,” in everyday conversation is, “I love the feeling of working out because it feels good.”
Of course, doing what feels good isn't necessarily harmful. We often feel better after doing things that are genuinely beneficial like sleeping, spending time with friends or even hugging a friend. In behavioral science, addiction carries a darker meaning that connotes a compulsive behavior that causes pain and interferes in everyday life if disrupted. For exercise addicts, not working out is the same as denying a drug addict their drugs, a withdrawal will begin.
True exercise addicts are rare, about three percent of people who work out. These addicts allow their fitness time to creep into and strangle other portions of their lives such as family and work.
Currently gambling addiction is the only behavioral addiction recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Exercise addiction is not recognized, nor is sex addiction or Internet addiction.
Exercise addiction is instead treated as a form of compulsive behavior similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The person will start to feel anxious and worry about what will happen if they miss a workout. Gaining weight is a common fear. Exercise addiction is often tied to eating disorders.
Diane Israel, a psychotherapist, psychology professor and former competitive athlete, spoke about her own addiction when she used running to deal with anxiety and other life pressures.
"When we are in an addictive phase, we aren’t listening to what our bodies need anymore, much less to what feels good," she wrote in her opinion. "We become rigid with routine and filled with self-loathing. Exercise becomes obsessive."
However, these cases are the exception and not the rule. In treating mental health issues, exercise is rarely the problem and more often the treatment. It is used to help treat depression and it also helps relieve anxiety. In fact, recovering drug addicts will sometimes use running or other exercise as a “swap” from their much less healthy habit.