Awareness of Exercise Addiction
Not many people have awareness of exercise addiction because exercise is good and necessary for health. Exercise improves bodily functions, stimulates cognitive functions, and can help with mental health issues. But, when it becomes obsessive, it can become addictive.
Exercise addiction is like other addictions: It affects the part of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. Exercise increases endorphins and dopamine in the brain that blunt the brains response to emotional stress and pain and increases pleasure responses.
Many runners or others who engage in aerobic exercises are familiar with “runner’s high.” Runner’s high is the euphoric feeling after an intense workout that some people experience which can lead to a vicious cycle. The desire to repeat pleasurable feeling leads a person wanting to exercise more which increases endorphins and dopamine in the brain. Continuous repetition of stimulating the reward and pleasure center creats an addiction.
“‘People say ‘Wow, I wish I was addicted to exercise,’ but exercise can be pathological if too much.’ Dr. Heather Hausenblas, Professor in the department of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida.”[i]
Symptoms of Exercise Addiction
The symptoms of exercise addiction can vary from person to person, but there are some common symptoms including:
- Compulsion to exercise to the exclusion of other aspects of daily life
- Feelings of uncontrollable desire to exercise
- Lack of interest and inability to reduce workout sessions
- Extensive time spent on making preparation to exercise, exercising, and recovering from exercise
- Experiencing a buzz feeling after working out
- Withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, etc. when workout schedule is prolonged or interrupted
- Lack of a social life and unable to maintain interpersonal relationships
- Isolation from family and friends due to time spent exercising
- Bodily harm such as
- Low weight
- Interrupted or nonexistent menstrual cycle for women
- Spine issues like herniated disks
- Stress fractures
Diagnosing Exercise Addiction
Because body image, weight loss, and extreme exercise in the U.S. is a cultural obsession, many people don’t recognize their addiction and don’t seek help, making a diagnosis difficult. Added to that is the American Psychiatric Association (APA) lack of an acknowledgment that the condition exists. Not having an APA designation means that there are no specific diagnostic criteria needed to make a diagnosis.
Because exercise addiction is not a recognized medical condition, it is usually diagnosed either by self-awareness or when brought to a person’s attention from family and friends. Also, it may be noticed by a doctor who either sees abnormal physical changes like extreme weight loss or when there are repeated injuries to the body.
“Currently, there are no formal 12-step or social support groups for those addicted to exercise. That said, because there’s such a strong link between compulsive exercise and eating disorders (ED), many ED treatment centers offer counseling for exercise addicts.”[ii]
Treatment for Exercise Addiction
The first step to recovery from addiction is acknowledging there is a problem and taking steps to remedy it. While there are very few mental health professionals specializing in exercise addiction, a therapist who treats eating disorders understand the compulsiveness of exercising can help. While you are in Washington DC area, check out professionals Health-science
Many of the same strategies for treating other addictions can be employed in treating exercise addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and behavioral strategies along with other self-healing therapies such as meditation and biofeedback are beneficial. Also, having supportive family and friends help with recovery.
There may be a need to reevaluate relationships that are only tied to exercise, such as friends who are personal trainers or workout friends. In addition, recovering exercise addicts need to broaden their interests away from exercising to non-workout activities.
Because exercise addiction is not yet an APA recognized condition, does not mean that it is not a serious or real health issue. Exercise addiction is as harmful as other addictions because it changes the brain’s chemical makeup and causes both mental and physical harm. Like other addictions, however, recovery is possible.
Exercise Addiction Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.addiction.com/addiction-a-to-z/exercise-addiction/exercise-addiction-treatment/.
Havrilesky, Heather. Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness? October 14, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/magazine/why-are-americans-so-fascinated-with-extreme-fitness.html.
Gu, Chris, Dr. and Mohney, Gillian. One woman’s story of exercise addiction highlights the consequences (April 27, 2017). Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/womans-story-shows-signs-exercise-addiction/story?id=47028383
Stubblefield, Heaven and Legg, Timothy J, Ph.D., CARN-AP, CASAC, MAC. Exercise Addiction (June 29, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-addiction
[i] Gu, Chris, Dr. and Mohney, Gillian, One woman’s story of exercise addiction highlights the consequences, April 27, 2017. Web.
[ii] Addiction.com, Exercise Addiction Treatment. Web.