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What Is Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction and its effects can be detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. Learn about treatment options here.

What Is Exercise Addiction?

The global fitness industry continues to grow steadily and as a result, more people visit the gym to maintain good physical and mental health.

However, some people may develop compulsive habits of over-exercising that may hurt their personal lives, leading to something called an exercise addiction. What is the difference between a fitness enthusiast and a person addicted to exercise?

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When Does Exercise Addiction Occur?

exercise addiction

Exercise addiction occurs when there is an overwhelming and unhealthy fixation with exercise and fitness. Unfortunately, people obsessed with exercise are not often deterred by injury or illness. Like other addictions, exercise addiction is characterized by compulsive behaviors and obsessions. The affected individual often has obsessive thoughts about fitness, body composition, and overly worries about what they’re eating in order to maintain their body.

It is also common to find people with exercise addiction neglect other aspects of their life, such as their marital or family relationships, social life, and other personal commitments.1

How is Exercise Addiction Diagnosed?

While there is no clear way to identify or assess exercise addiction, research suggests that some criteria are linked to general characteristics that exist in all addictive behaviors:

  • Exercise becomes the most vital part of a person's life, and they often arrange their schedule solely around exercising.
  • There is a conflict in other areas of the person’s life due to exercise addiction. 
  • Feeling withdrawals or negative feelings when unable to engage in sexual behavior
  • People tend to experience a euphoric feeling when they exercise, leading them to want to continue doing it.
  • The desire to intensify their exercise levels to keep experiencing the psychological effects.
  • If the person stops exercising, they often feel very anxious or guilty.

Warning Signs and Prevalence of Exercise Addiction 

  • Feeling guilty or anxious if you do not exercise
  • Exercising even when it is inconvenient
  • Running out of time for other things in your life because you feel you need to exercise
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cannot exercise
  • Exercising even when you have injuries or when you are sick
  • Skipping work, school, or social events to exercise 2 

Types of Exercise Addiction

There are two main types of exercise addiction: primary and secondary. They tend to affect men and women differently, and can also vary in their severity. 

Primary Exercise Addiction

Primary exercise addiction is a behavioral addiction that deals primarily with the fixation on working out. People with this type of addiction generally have no other mental condition affecting them.

Males are more likely to develop primary exercise addiction in response to endorphins. Exercise-induced endorphins allow the body to produce its high, and this endorphin rush is what makes working out and exercising so addictive. 

Secondary Exercise Addiction

Secondary exercise addiction occurs in conjunction with another mental condition. For example, it is prevalent among people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Secondary exercise addiction is generally common in women and develops due to body image problems. When combined with obsessive exercises, the deficiency of nutrients from the coexisting eating disorder can result in injury and illness.3

Causes and Risk Factors

Exercise addiction typically begins with the longing to enhance one’s physical fitness. A major cause of an unhealthy obsession with exercise developing is because of an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Exercise addiction develops in four phases:

Phase 1: Recreational Exercise

At first, a person may be motivated to exercise because they want to improve their health and fitness, or they may just generally enjoy it. Exercise is pleasurable and enhances a person's quality of life during this stage. As a result, they can maintain their exercise routine and would not experience any negative outcomes if they do not. 

Phase 2: At-Risk Exercise

This second stage sees the person at risk of developing an addiction to exercise. Therefore, they begin to increase the intensity and the frequency of their workout at this stage.

At this phase, the main motivation for exercising has shifted from enjoyment to exercise being a stress reliever. Individuals now see exercise as a means to change their appearances and improve their self-esteem. Exercise is primarily a way to cope with unpleasant feelings and experiences. 

Phase 3: Problematic Exercise

During the third phase, problems really begin to emerge. People begin to plan their daily lives around their increasingly strict workout regimen. If they are forced to exercise less due to an injury, they may experience mood swings and irritability. They may be forced to seek alternative forms of exercise to meet their needs.

Phase 4: Exercise Addiction

At this phase, a person's life centers around working out. As a result, they continue to increase the frequency and intensity of their workouts, disrupting other aspects of their life as well, including social and work occurrences.4

Effects of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is generally linked to numerous physical and psychological side effects, including:

  • Negative social consequences
  • Anxious psychological functioning 
  • Exercising despite being advised not to
  • Increasingly being prone to injury
  • Joint damage
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Strained or torn muscles or tendons

Although regular exercise strengthens bones and muscles, too much of it may heighten the risk of stress fractures and muscle injuries. Similarly, exercise addiction may also cause menstrual disturbances in women.

Conditions Associated with Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction can is associated with several conditions, including:

exercise addiction
  • Eating disorders: Excessive exercise is a common component of eating disorders. These are typically found in patients with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and muscle dysmorphia.
  • Body image disorders: Exercise addiction is prevalent among people with body image disorder, especially athletes. Recent research shows that competitive athletes and gym users are at a much higher risk of developing exercise addiction.5
  • Perfectionism: Many people strive to have the “perfect body” according to society’s standards. This can cause them to start overly working out and therefore develop an exercise addiction.
  • Neuroticism: Exercise addictions can affect a person's behavior and lead to signs of neuroticism.
  • Narcissism: According to research by the International Journal of Environmental Research And Public Health, narcissistic individuals are at a higher rate of developing exercise addictions. The study further revealed that narcissistic admiration and rivalry were linked with interpersonal motives for exercise.6
  • Obsessive-compulsive traits: There are links between exercise addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD. Individuals with OCD show similar traits in exercise addiction, such as a lack of control over a compulsion such as an exercise. Many doctors use exercise addiction as a side effect of OCD.
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