There is no question that regular exercise offers many benefits to a person’s physical and mental health. Studies have shown that even moderate exercise can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and exercise goes a long way toward improving mood and self-esteem. Though it is typically defined as a good and healthy habit, exercise can sometimes become an addiction and have a negative influence on physical and mental well-being.
There is no specific or universally accepted definition of exercise addiction. The condition is not listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), though the characteristics and symptoms of behavioral addictions, under which exercises addiction likely falls, are described. As with many other forms of addiction, exercise addiction can be distinguished from being merely devoted to fitness by two relevant criteria. Exercise addiction may be implicated when:
- Exercise no longer improves one’s quality of life, but on the contrary, causes problems in a person’s life in physical and psychological forms. Under these circumstances, an exercise habit is maladaptive.
- A person exercises excessively, perhaps several hours each day, without giving the body a chance to rest. In exercise addiction, these defining criteria are often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, which are present whenever a person, for any reason, cannot exercise. These withdrawal symptoms may include irritability, guilt, depression, and anxiety.
Thirty minutes of physical activity per day has the power to prevent health conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Most studies recommend 60 to 90 minutes of exercise three to four times a week, but there is no single formula that should be applied universally as training programs and athletic demands will differ from person to person.
The following checklist can be helpful in differentiating a state of being addicted to exercise from being merely committed to it:
- Missing important social events because of exercising.
- Losing interest in other hobbies or activities you enjoy, so that there is more time for exercising.
- Feeling happy only while exercising.
- Preferring exercise over other pleasant activities such as going out, having sex, or eating a delicious meal.
- Exercising even when exhausted, sick, or injured.
- Spending any extra time exercising on a day-to-day basis.
- Friends and/or family members expressing serious concern over a person’s exercise habits.
Individuals satisfying three or more of these symptoms may benefit from examining their exercise habits and speaking with a qualified therapist or mental health professional to develop a healthier approach to exercise. The first step to take in treating an addiction is to identify and acknowledge a problem.
A popular treatment for exercise addiction symptoms is residential treatment in an inpatient program. These treatment facilities separate people from the stress and routine of day-to-day life, allowing them to focus on wellness. Residents are supported through individual or group counseling to address many of the emotional reasons behind an addiction and develop healthier behaviors and coping methods. Some rehab centers offer outpatient treatment for those who cannot access inpatient care, and for those leaving the facility who may require additional support to avoid relapse.
Some people may benefit from simply meeting with a chosen therapist or a support group on a regular basis. A qualified therapist can help a person understand the underlying reasons for the addiction, which often yields better long-term results than trying to tackle an addiction by oneself. Support groups allow people to interact with others experiencing similar conditions, offering a safe environment to foster the therapeutic process of battling addiction. Regardless of the treatment modality, therapy can help a person address the urge for control over one’s life and how to exercise without organizing one’s life around it.
- Stress and the need for control: Amanda, 31, has been physically inactive for most of her life. When she was 28, she started doing Pilates. A few weeks into it, she began to feel better and loved the improvement to her physical appearance. A year into Pilates, Amanda went though a stressful period. She ended a long relationship, moved into another apartment, and lost her job. Feeling desperate and lonely, Amanda decided to add some extra gym time to her regular Pilates routine. Whenever she felt sad, she went to the gym and worked out hard. She began feeling that exercising was the only part of her life she had control over. In addition to Pilates, she started spending an hour afterward running on a treadmill. Sometimes, on especially stressful days, she went to the gym three times a day. She started to skip outings with her friends and lied to them by saying she was sick or busy with work. She nearly lost her new job because of her commitment to the gym, at which point she realized something had to change. Amanda searched for and admitted herself to a local rehabilitation clinic, where she underwent treatment with a therapist who helped her to let go of the urge to have complete control over her life. Amanda has since found other activities that make her feel content while maintaining a healthy workout schedule she developed with her primary care physician.
- Bush, C. (2014). How to Know if You're Exercising Too Much. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/slideshows/how-to-know-if-youre-exercising-too-much
- Hansen, C.J., Stevens, L.C, and Coast, J.R. (2001). Exercise duration and mood state: how much is enough to feel better? Health Psychology, 20(4), 267-75. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11515738
- Stoliaroff, S. (n.d.). Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction. The American Running Association. Volume 18, Number 6, Running & Fit News. Retrieved from http://www.active.com/articles/know-the-signs-of-unhealthy-exercise-addiction