Exercise Addiction: When Workouts Go Too Far

Most doctors, health experts and trainers would say that the majority of Americans get far too little exercise.

There does exist a small percentage of people, however, who overdo it when it comes to physical activity.

It can start out in a variety of ways, but for some people, exercising becomes an obsession, a compulsion and finally, an addiction. Like any other addiction, it can take over a person’s life and have devastating consequences.

What makes an exercise addict?

If you go to the gym each day to stay fit, don’t panic. That alone does not make you an exercise addict. You are most likely just someone who enjoys being in good shape and getting daily exercise. In the majority of people who work out regularly, the habit is a positive and healthy one. So what is the difference between someone who is healthy, and someone with a dangerous habit? There are a few criteria:

  • Tolerance — An exercise addict needs to get more and more physical activity over time  just to get the desired high or feeling of achievement.
  • Loss of control — Addicts try to stop or slow down, but fail in those attempts.
  • Withdrawal — When the addict can’t get to the gym or is too busy to fit in a workout, he starts to feel negative side effects. These may include bad sleep, loss of appetite, anxiety or irritability.
  • Going overboard — An addict often goes past the intended workout intensity or duration and cannot stick to the original plan.
  • Excessive time — Exercise addicts spend an excessive amount of time working out. They also spend too much time thinking about the next work out, planning for it and recovering from workouts.
  • Missing out on other activities — For the exercise addict, the habit starts to take over other aspects of his life. He may miss out on time with family, work or other activities.
  • Continuing — In spite of the negative consequences, such as missed responsibilities or physical injuries, the exercise addict continues to work out.

How healthy habits turn bad

Most people start working out with the best of intentions. We want to feel better, look better, and be healthier, so we exercise. In some people, a healthy habit can turn into an addiction and it is not always clear that it is happening. Early on when working out, you probably feel really good about it. You are pleased with how your body is changing. Maybe you lose weight and you feel stronger. You have a workout schedule and you stick to it.

When this healthy pattern starts to change, that’s when you should be aware and possibly concerned. Look for changes in yourself or in someone you care about who might be turning exercise into an obsession. Exercise improves your mood, and when you start doing it simply to feel better, you are at risk for going too far. At this stage, you are not necessarily destined to become addicted to your workout, but be aware of how you use exercise to improve your mood.

Exercising may become problematic when you start organizing other daily activities around your workout routine. If fitting in your workout is the most important factor in your day, slow down and take stock of your priorities. At this point, you may also begin to feel that you cannot control yourself when it comes to a workout. You may start to go beyond the duration you planned. Or, you may feel that you have to exercise in spite of an injury or your spouse’s complaints that you spend too much time at the gym.

Being aware of other negative habits

From here it is a short slide into addiction and meeting the criteria. Exercise is a great habit for most people, and many should engage in it more often. However, the habit can turn negative. Be aware of how you exercise and how it fits into your life to avoid becoming an addict. Also be aware of other habits in your life that may be related to a compulsion to exercise. For instance, eating disorders often coincide with exercise addiction. If you begin to obsess over what you eat, you may have deeper body image issues.

Help for compulsive exercise addiction

Rest assured that if you do feel you have an exercise addiction, or have issues with your body image, that you can get help. As with other behavioral addictions, there are trained counselors and therapists who can help you through your issues and teach you how to control your urges. With help, you can be someone who works out simply to stay fit and feel good.

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