Exercise addiction is real. It almost sounds silly given the incredible benefits that physical activity provides, but just like with almost anything else, too much of this good thing has the potential to become toxic.
But what exactly separates the difference between a healthy relationship with working out and a seriously dangerous addiction?
For example, a runner training for a marathon may experience fatigue, moodiness and disrupted sleeping habits as training volume and intensity reach peak levels. This can be remedied by scaling back a bit and incorporating more rest and recovery time.
Exercise addiction, on the other hand, is noted as being associated with impulsive and compulsive behaviors that disrupt day-to-day life.
“The many iterations of my rigid fitness schedule — including but not limited to two hour-long sequences of the same set of yoga postures every single day, to a minimum 400 calorie burn on an elliptical machine, or a twenty-five-minute hike up a Stairmaster followed by a thirty-minute session on a Cybex climber — has quite literally controlled my life for the past ten years,” Katherine Schreiber wrote of her addiction to exercise on Greatist.com
One study from the Fielding Graduate University School of Psychology in Santa Barbara, California defined the following criteria for identifying exercise addiction.
- Tolerance: increasing the amount of exercise in order to feel the desired effect, be it a” buzz” or 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 at attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising for a certain period of time;
- Intention effects: unable to stick to one’s intended routine as evidenced by exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise or consistently going beyond the intended amount;
- 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 is creating or exacerbating physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems.
The study also made a point of noting that although someone like an Olympic athlete or even an amateur exerciser who works out every day might meet several of the above measures, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are addicted to exercise.
The report explands,
“One of the thornier issues in defining exercise addiction concerns how to distinguish healthy exercise from exercise addiction. In order to reap the health benefits of exercise, the behavior needs to be engaged in relatively frequently and for extended duration. In fact healthy exercise can share attributes of an addiction. There can be tolerance in which a person runs farther or lifts more weight before feeling gratified that the workout was worthwhile. Normal exercise does not preclude creating negative consequences in the form of physical injury or time taken away from other important activities.”
The research behind treating exercise addiction is limited, but it has been noted that eliminating exercise completely is probably not the best solution. Instead, working towards following a moderate exercise routine that fits within the recommended amounts (150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, plus two or three days of resistance training) is likely a better approach.
If you think you might be suffering from exercise addiction, it's also recommended that you seek help from a counselor.