Exercise Addiction | Definition and Patient Education

Exercise Addiction

What Is Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction is an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise. It is often a result of body image disorders and eating disorders. Exercise addicts display traits similar to those of other addicts. These include obsession with the behavior, engaging in the behavior even though it is causing physical harm, engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop, and engaging in the behavior in secret.

Exercise causes the release of certain chemicals in the nervous system. These chemicals create a sense of pleasure or reward. Exercise addiction may be, in part, a dependence on this pleasure response.

Extreme weight loss and health conditions related to weight loss can result from exercise addiction.

What Causes Exercise Addiction?

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use. An exercise addict feels reward and joy when exercising. But when exercise stops, the neurotransmitters go away. An addict has to exercise more to trigger the chemical release.

Exercise addiction usually starts with a desire for physical fitness. An eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia may lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise. A body dysmorphic disorder, or body image disorder, may also cause exercise addiction.

Who Is at Risk For Exercise Addiction?

People who feel pressure to stay in shape are at risk of developing exercise addiction.

Overweight people who set out on an extreme weight loss regimen may be at risk of exercise addiction.

Researchers at the University of Southern California speculate that 15 percent of exercise addicts are also addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or illicit drugs. An estimated 25 percent may have other addictions, such as sex addiction or shopping addiction.

In some cases, former drug addicts and alcohol abusers turn to exercise to fill the void left by past addictions. This is similar to the way a smoker may become addicted to caffeine after quitting cigarettes.

What Are the Symptoms of Exercise Addiction?

Common signs of exercise addiction include:

  • feeling buzzed after exercising
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms after long periods without exercise
  • uncontrollable desires to exercise
  • reduced activities in other areas of life to make time for exercise
  • long periods spent preparing for and recovering from exercise
  • inability to stick to a reduced exercise routine

How Is Exercise Addiction Diagnosed?

Exercise addiction is not always easy to diagnose. Most exercise addicts don’t see anything wrong with their behavior and don’t report it.

Increased fitness obsession and decreased social activity commonly indicate exercise addiction. A doctor may ask you to keep a journal of your workout routines and social activities to determine if you are addicted.

How Is Exercise Addiction Treated?

In most cases, self-control is required to treat exercise addiction. An addict acknowledges that he or she has a problem and takes steps to control exercise activity. Medications and home care may treat exercise addiction.


Medications may treat other addictions that make exercise addiction worse, such as smoking or illegal drug use.

Home Care

Exercise addicts often switch to new forms of exercise or moderate their current workouts. An exercise addict may need to stop exercising for a time in order to gain control of the desire to exercise.

What Is the Outlook for Exercise Addiction?

Mental and physical dedication can treat exercise addiction. But displays of addictive behavior are warning signs of other addictions that may come. Exercise addicts should avoid drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that cause addiction.

The amount of time it takes for a person to overcome exercise addiction depends on the severity of the condition.

Preventing Exercise Addiction

To prevent exercise addiction, avoid excessive trips to the gym. Limit your workout time and the amount of daily exercise. Take breaks from exercise throughout the week to let your body rest. If you find yourself becoming uncontrollably obsessed, talk to your doctor about your options.

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