You probably already know that regular exercise is among the very best things you can do for your health. Among many other benefits, it makes it easier to lose weight or stick to a healthy weight; it strengthens your heart, lung and muscles; it’s a very effective way to manage stress and stave off depression; and physical activity helps reduce your odds of developing many of the biggest killers, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. But for roughly 1% to 3% of the 20% of physically active adults in the U.S., exercise turns from a healthy habit into a compulsive, destructive activity, according to physical activity and healthy aging expert, researcher and author Heather A. Hausenblas, PhD, associate professor at Jacksonville University, in the College of Health Sciences, in Jacksonville, Florida, and co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration.
Although exercise addiction — which is also known as exercise dependence, compulsive exercise, obligatory exercise and anorexia athletica — isn’t recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the leading diagnostic guide for the mental health profession, more health care providers, along with fitness experts, say that exercise addiction is indeed a type of behavioral addiction, like gambling, sex, porn and video game addictions, among others.
Much like other types of behavioral addiction, people who are addicted to exercise tend to:
- Build up a tolerance, leading to a need to exercise more
- Become dependent on workouts as a way to cope with emotions and “feel normal”
- Continue despite physical and/or mental harm
- Have trouble cutting back despite wanting to stop
- Consistently go beyond the intended amount/intensity
- Experience symptoms of withdrawal (for example, depression, irritability) when skipping a day or two of workouts
- Minimize or hide the extent of the problem
In short, for the exercise addict, working out becomes a necessity and the mere thought of not doing it can trigger feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety and/or worthlessness. Check out the section on Symptoms for a full list of potential warning signs.
Also like other types of addiction, exercise dependence is very often accompanied by other issues. Nearly half of those with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia also suffer from exercise addiction. And if you or a loved one has an addiction to nicotine, alcohol and/or illicit drugs the odds are higher of developing a compulsion to exercise; this is often referred to as a “transfer addiction,” in which someone in recovery essentially trades one addiction for another. For example, you may stop doing drugs, but then start running 40 miles a week.
Exercise, like work addiction, is easy to conceal and often overlooked since being very physically active is usually a habit that’s highly valued. It may be very hard for the addict him or herself to recognize a problem as well. After all, it’s hard to think of exercise, or the desire to be very physically fit, as a bad thing, right? And can exercise really be a potent enough “drug” to cause addiction, or lead to withdrawal symptoms when it’s stopped? Some would even argue that far from being a true addiction, those who exercise compulsively should be held up as virtuous, not unhealthy.
But exercise addiction is more than spending endless hours at the gym or even chasing that “runner’s high,” “yoga bliss” or any of the euphoric feelings that can flood the brain after exercise. Like other types of compulsive behavior that edge into addiction, the exercise addict has an extreme pattern of behavior in which the need to be physically active interferes with daily life (work/school, relationships, hobbies, finances, etc.). Over time, exercise becomes less about a physical and mental release and more about avoiding the anxiety and rage that follows when missing workouts. If left untreated, compulsive exercise can lead to extreme weight loss, overuse injuries, exhaustion, depression, heart problems and even thoughts of suicide.
Even though exercise addiction isn’t widely recognized, and few large-scale studies have been done to date, there are still a variety of resources to help, whether you’ve just noticed the problem or have seen it worsen over time. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one is addicted to exercise, it may be time to reach out to a health care professional or psychotherapist who can evaluate symptoms, make a diagnosis and identify any underlying problems, such as an eating disorder or depression. Denial can be especially hard to overcome in this case, since exercising is, of course, typically a healthy activity. But if you or someone you care about no longer feels the joy and fun of exercise, and feels powerless to stop working out, it’s time to seek help. As with food addiction and sex addiction, the goal of treatment won’t be to stop exercising altogether — like food and sex, being active is necessary for a balanced life, after all — but to find ways to make workouts something that improve life, not harm it.