Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By: Cindy Coloma
Many of us prefer to start our day with exercise. Taking care of our health is important, and exercise undeniably plays a crucial role. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to be healthy. Whether you are controlling weight or improving mental health and mood, exercise has been shown to be a positive health benefit and safe for most people.1 But too much of a good thing can be harmful and addicting.
Individuals who struggle with disorders or addictions have been shown to be more susceptible to exercise addiction. Studies estimate that 15 to 20 percent of individuals who are addicted to exercise are also addicted to alcohol, nicotine or illicit drugs. They also suggest that up to 25% of people with one addiction have an additional addiction. For example, buying or shopping addiction has been identified as common among the exercise-addicted, while exercise addiction is common among individuals addicted to sex. Topping the list are those who have an eating disorder as well as a co-occurring exercise addiction.2
According to a report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, approximately 39 to 48 percent of people struggling with eating disorders also struggle with exercise addiction. Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many professionals are seeing a rise in the occurrence of people addicted to exercise.
What Is Exercise Addiction?
So how do you tell the difference between healthy exercise and a harmful addiction? Experts seem to agree on the following signs:
- Tolerance: Many people achieve positive effects from their exercise such as reduction in anxiety, a feeling of euphoria and increased self-esteem. Individuals struggling with exercise addiction find themselves needing more and more of the initial activity to achieve their desired results.
- Withdrawal: When a workout is cancelled or postponed, a person who is addicted may experience intense anxiety, fatigue or irritability.
- Habit of excess: A person struggling with exercise addiction my repeatedly exceed their planned limits for exercise. This might be promising to stop after an hour spent running, only to tack on an additional 30 minutes or more at the 50 minute mark.
- Lack of control: Many individuals who are experiencing exercise addiction find that the compulsion to exercise intrudes uncomfortably into their social and work lives. They cannot seem to stop thinking or planning their exercise environments and cannot keep their habits at manageable levels.
- Time: Planning, engaging in and recovering from exercise consumes a noticeably large portion of time, and the amount they exercise far exceeds what is recommended by fitness or medical professionals.
- Reductions in other activities: Social, career and recreational activities are deserted to prioritize fitness.
- Continuance: Despite warnings from medical professionals and trainers, a person who is struggling with exercise addiction persists in physical activity despite illness or injury, sometimes jeopardizing their own long-term health.3
Recognizing exercise addiction in your own life or in the life of another can be difficult. The escalation and evolution from a healthy habit to an addiction can span over months or years and take longer to admit and confront. It can stem from coping mechanisms, be a secondary or primary addiction and is a behavior-associated addiction. There is little research on the treatment.
Writer Lindsay Hall shared her journey into alcohol abuse, exercise addiction and exercise bulimia in her article, “Running Was My Drug of Choice. Here’s How I Finally Found Balance.” After entering treatment she writes, “Stripped of both running and alcohol, I had to relearn who I wanted to be without the aid of a drug – and yes, exercise was my drug. We live in a society where exercising and focusing on clean eating are the signs of a healthy (and sought after) lifestyle – and I was able to hide behind that for years.”4
Often the first goal for friends and therapists is to help people recognize addictive behavior and for extreme exercise to be reduced. A recent paper by the British Medical Journal recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as a possible solution.5 Treatment centers such as Center for Change offer therapies that can help.
Center for Change takes a comprehensive approach to treating a wide range of eating disorders, while understanding the connection between eating and exercise addiction.
1 “The Benefits of Physical Activity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov, June 4, 2015.
2 Friemuth, et al. “Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, October 21, 2011.
3 Schrieber, Katherine and Heather Hausenblas Ph.D. “Yes, You Can Get Addicted to Exercise.” Psychology Today, March 23, 2015.
4 Hall, Lindsey. “Running Was My Drug of Choice. Here’s How I Finally Found Balance.” Greatist.com, February 17, 2015.
5 Howard, Jacqueline. “When Exercise Shifts From a Healthy Habit to an Unhealthy Addiction.” Cnn.com, May 9, 2017.