It’s unlikely that you’ll find a facility, or even many mental health professionals, that specialize in the treatment of exercise addiction. A good place to start, however, may be with a therapist or facility specializing in eating disorder treatment. They’ll likely have some familiarity with treating compulsive exercisers and can help lead you or someone you love in the right direction.
Treatment for exercise addiction typically uses the same strategies that have been shown to be effective with other forms of behavioral addiction, like gambling, sex, porn and video game addictions, among others. If you or a loved one decides to work with a therapist or counselor who specializes in exercise addiction, treatment will likely involve some form of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on exploring negative or maladaptive patterns in thinking, feeling and acting and changing these to more productive, helpful patterns.
Currently, there are no formal 12-step or social support groups for those addicted to exercise. That said, because there’s such a strong link between compulsive exercise and eating disorders (ED), many ED treatment centers offer counseling for exercise addicts.
The definition of sobriety for an exercise addict differs significantly from how it might be defined for someone with a substance abuse problem. After all, the goal won’t be to give up exercise altogether, of course. It can be helpful to think of treatment for exercise addiction as similar to that for food addiction and sex addiction. Complete abstinence from eating or having sex isn’t healthy, of course; nor is living a sedentary life. So the goal in treating exercise addiction is not avoiding exercise altogether, but learning to develop and maintain healthy, non-compulsive workouts that serve to improve (not harm) your physical and mental well-being.
Most often, this is accomplished by either moderating the exercise you’re doing or by introducing a new form of exercise; the avid runner dials it down by swimming, for instance. Activities like yoga and meditation are also used to help clients pull back on strenuous workouts. Depending on the severity of the addiction, however, you may need to abstain from exercise during the beginning phases of treatment. This is especially true when exercise addiction is secondary to an eating disorder.
Behavioral strategies, such as contingency management — which rewards abstinence from a type of exercise or maintaining lower levels of a once-addictive behavior — have been found particularly effective. For example, the exercise addict will be rewarded for “lower” levels of exercise or taking a day off, explains 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. Additionally, antidepressants may be prescribed to treat any underlying depression or anxiety that fueled the exercise addiction.
Building a supportive social circle is yet another key component in long-term recovery. This likely means you or your loved one will need to revaluate current relationships, especially if friends are mostly comprised of personal trainers or workout buddies.
Similarly, it’s important for a recovering exercise addict to expand hobbies and interests to include non-fitness-related interests. Read a book for pleasure; go to the movies; join a non-exercise related club; or get involved in your community, suggests Dr. Hausenblas. The goal is to have some interests that have nothing to do with training.
If you or a loved one is suffering from exercise addiction, help is available. To learn more about treatment, visit the Get Help section.
Sources: American Journal of Health Studies; Addiction Research and Theory; Heather A. Hausenblas, PhD; International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health; National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders; The Journal of Clinical Investigation; Psychiatry Research; The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration.