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Exercise addiction signs, symptoms, and treatments

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Exercise addiction

Exercise addiction is a compulsive need to engage in any form of physical activity regardless of adverse consequences like physical injury. There are distinguishing characteristics that set healthy exercise apart from exercise addiction. 

The symptoms of exercise addiction include exercising excessively without taking a post-workout recovery, being unable to cut down on workout duration, developing tolerance to physical activity, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when skipping a workout, and neglecting other responsibilities in life to make time for exercise. 

Several factors contribute to overexercising. The most common causes of exercise addiction include chasing the euphoric state obtained through exercise, suffering from an eating disorder, and having a negative body image. 

Becoming addicted to physical activity is also associated with a wide array of physical and psychological adverse consequences. The effects of exercise addiction include damaged personal relationships, an increased risk for bone and muscle injuries, psychological distress, and eating disorders.

What is exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction is an uncontrollable impulse to engage in excessive exercise that often leads to the impairment of physiological and psychological functions. Compulsive exercising is characterized by a craving for physical activity despite fatigue, illness, or injury. 

People addicted to working out have a constant preoccupation with exercise and may spend the whole day thinking about when to hit the gym again. A person with the condition may also be aware of the negative consequences of their addictive behavior but will continue to engage in excessive physical activity anyway.

What are the causes of exercise addiction?

The causes of exercise addiction involve several factors that may influence the development of the condition. The causes of exercise addiction are listed below. 

  • Biological factors: include genetic predisposition to obsessive behaviors and the activation of the brain’s reward system. Some people who have a genetic predisposition to exercise addiction are more likely to have an intense and uncontrollable desire to engage in physical activity. Meanwhile, exercise also releases brain chemicals that are associated with feelings of reward and joy, which makes an addicted person repeat the behavior.
  • Psychological factors: low self-esteem, eating disorders, and a negative body image are some of the psychological factors that contribute to exercise addiction. A person who has an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia is more likely to develop an exercise addiction, according to a 2020 meta-analysis of morbid exercise behavior and eating disorders published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Having body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) or negative body image can also result in overexercising.
  • Social factors: Social pressures such as pressure from a peer group can make a person engage in physical activity, no matter how excessive. Someone may change their attitude towards excessive exercise due to the group’s beliefs and pressures.

What are the effects of exercise addiction?

women holding head after exercise

The effects of exercise addiction refer to the consequences that individuals may experience when they develop an unhealthy and compulsive relationship with exercise. The effects of exercise addiction are listed below. 

  • Physical effects: Physical risks linked to exercise addiction include an increased risk for exercise-related injuries, joint or muscle damage, stress fractures, bone loss, and menstrual disorders in women. Exercise addicts may ignore injuries and proceed with working out, leading to aggravation of injuries and extension of the recovery period. Excessive exercise in women can also cause menstrual disturbances and period loss, according to a 2015 meta-analysis by Ennour-Idrissi et al., published in Breast Cancer Research.
  • Psychological effects: Co-occurring mental health conditions and eating disorders are both associated with exercise addiction. While overexercising can cause anxiety, depression, emotional distress, and eating disorders, other people may also have pre-existing psychological disorders and use exercise as a means of dealing with the stress of daily life, according to a 2021 study by Caponnetto et al., published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  • Short-term effects: may be physical or psychological. The short-term effects of exercise addiction include joint inflammation, sprained ligaments, increased irritability, anxiety, and guilt when one is prevented from working out or is made to reduce the intensity and frequency of exercise.
  • Long-term effects: Someone who is addicted to exercising may experience long-term health effects, including dysfunctional relationships, impaired social relations, depression-like symptoms, scarring of the heart muscle, and cognitive distortion.

What are the signs and symptoms of exercise addiction?

The signs and symptoms of exercise addiction represent observable and experienced indications that an individual’s exercise routine is starting to interfere with their daily life. The most common signs and symptoms of exercise addiction are listed below.

  • Exercising excessively without taking a rest day: Exercise addicts tend to overexert themselves by exercising for several hours each day even when sick or exhausted. This excessive physical activity does not allow the body to recover and may lead to burnout.
  • Being unable to cut down on workout duration: Attempting but failing to cut down on one’s workout duration may be a sign that a person is addicted to exercise. This may also include being unable to decrease the intensity of a workout routine as the addicted individual may never feel satisfied with their physical achievements.
  • Developing tolerance to physical activity: involves increasing the amount of time spent exercising or increasing the intensity of the workout to achieve the same high or desired effect.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when skipping a workout: Withdrawal symptoms include feelings of irritability, anxiety, frustration, or restlessness after going a few hours without exercising.
  • Neglecting other responsibilities in life: As exercise becomes the center of an individual’s life, they may have less time for other areas of life such as work, school, or family and ultimately neglect important obligations to make time for exercise.

Other possible exercise addiction symptoms include:

  1. Spending an enormous amount of time thinking about exercise
  2. Experiencing uncontrollable urges to exercise even after sustaining an injury
  3. Engaging in excessive exercise despite being aware of persistent physical, psychological, or social problems.

How to overcome exercise addiction

An individual can overcome exercise addiction by acknowledging that a problem exists and by having a trusted loved one to communicate the issue with. Admitting the problem is often the first step to finding a solution. 

Exercise addicts often feel alone in their struggles. Having someone who can offer emotional support is an assurance that a person will not go through the journey of recovery alone. 

Building a support network also means that there are people who will hold the recovering addict accountable for their actions, helping the exercise addict stay on track and focus on an addiction-free life. Taking responsibility for each decision is essential in avoiding relapse and maintaining a sober life.

What are the risk factors for exercise addiction?

risks of exercise addiction

The risk factors for exercise addiction include conditions or circumstances that  may increase a person’s susceptibility to compulsive exercise. The risk factors for exercise addiction are listed below. 

  • An addictive personality: Having an addictive personality means possessing traits commonly seen in people with a higher risk of developing addiction, including a family history of addiction, a love of excitement, impulsivity, and risk-taking behaviors.
  • Lack of self-esteem: Self-esteem issues are often tied to low self-image. People who have low self-esteem are more likely to develop exercise addiction as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional distress.
  • Tendencies toward perfectionism: Perfectionists often have low self-esteem as a result of setting unrealistically high expectations for themselves. They also tend to push themselves and overcompensate to obtain perfection, which puts them at a higher risk for developing exercise dependence, according to a 2017 study by Sofie Jansson & Susanne Widlund about the mediating role of self-esteem in the relationship between perfectionism and exercise dependence.  
  • Past or present addiction to other substances: Individuals who are addicted to other substances such as alcohol or nicotine are more likely to become addicted to exercise and suffer from multiple addictions.
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders are common in people with exercise addiction. A person with anorexia nervosa may develop an unhealthy obsession with exercise due to a fear of weight gain. Similarly, individuals with orthorexia nervosa, which is an obsession with healthy eating, may exercise compulsively as part of their extreme weight loss goals.

Who is at risk for exercise addiction?

Individuals who are at risk for exercise addiction include those with elevated levels of neuroticism, low in agreeableness, and people with a competitive nature, according to a 2018 pilot study exploring the role of personality factors in exercise addiction published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction

Individuals who have high levels of neuroticism tend to experience a lot of stress, anxiety, irritability, and mood swings. People with neurotic personalities are more likely to abuse substances and have eating disorders. Neurotics tend to develop exercise dependence to deal with and handle negative feelings. 

Individuals who are low in agreeableness often have a competitive nature and take little interest in other people. People who tend to be less agreeable will engage in excessive physical activity as a way of satisfying their competitive nature.

How do you treat exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction is treated by identifying destructive thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to the disorder and developing healthier coping methods. These are commonly achieved with a type of treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that involves working with a therapist who can help the exercise addict develop self-awareness and learn how to remove themselves from trigger situations. 

Several addiction treatment centers include CBT as part of their inpatient and outpatient programs. Other treatment options of exercise addiction include motivational interviewing, support groups, and dual diagnosis treatment. 

Dual diagnosis treatment is especially helpful for people who have co-occurring psychological disorders along with exercise addiction. This type of treatment addresses both issues to achieve the best outcome in an individual’s recovery. 

Why is exercising addictive?

women doing heavy exercise at gym

Exercising is addictive because it triggers the release of brain chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of happiness and relaxation. Exercise is any physical activity that promotes overall health and fitness. 

People engage in regular physical activity to maintain a healthy weight, combat health risks and diseases, and improve their mood and overall mental health. 

Healthy exercise has a plethora of benefits. The advantages of exercising regularly include the improvement of brain health, better sleep, a healthy heart, and relief from stress and anxiety. In some cases, however, exercise may become unhealthy, especially when someone develops an obsession over the activity. 

The disadvantages of excessive exercise include developing exercise addiction, being more prone to bone and muscle injuries, struggling with eating disorders, and having dysfunctional relationships. 

One of the reasons why exercise can be addictive is because of the release of brain chemicals that create a sense of euphoria. This response to physical activity is also seen in other forms of addiction like drug use. 

The feelings of euphoria and pleasure dissipate in the absence of exercise. As a result, an exercise addict feels the need to exercise more to feel the desired effects once again.

When is exercise addiction counseling necessary?

Exercise addiction counseling is necessary when identifying and addressing the psychological reasons behind engaging in excessive exercise. Working with a mental health counselor will help identify and understand the triggers of the addiction so that a struggling exercise addict can develop healthier behaviors and coping strategies to avoid relapse. 

Counseling sessions may be done individually, in groups, or with family members. The aim of counseling is to address emotional challenges that may tempt a person to engage in compulsive exercise again.

What are the symptoms of exercise addiction withdrawal?

The symptoms of exercise addiction withdrawal include anxiety, increased irritability, restlessness, depression, guilt, and sleep problems. Withdrawal symptoms may occur when an exercise addict is forced to stop or cut back on working out. 

As exercise becomes the center of the addicted person’s life, avoiding uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms becomes the primary motivation for excessive physical activity.

What is the unique relation between exercise and energy drink addiction?

The unique relation between exercise and energy drink addiction is that many exercisers take energy drinks before working out in order to improve performance during exercise. However, energy drinks cannot replace body fluids that are lost in sweat while exercising like how sports drinks do.

In fact, the caffeine content of  beverages that individuals with energy drink addiction often consume has a mild diuretic effect or may cause the need to urinate and therefore remove water from the body. Although this does not increase one’s risk for dehydration, overconsumption of caffeine while exercising may have adverse consequences.

For instance, having too much caffeine while working out can result in heart palpitations, jitters, and nausea.