What is exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction is an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise. It’s often a result of body image disorders and eating disorders. Exercise addicts display traits similar to those of other addicts, which include:

  • obsessing over the behavior
  • engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm
  • engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop
  • 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 could result from exercise addiction.

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine. These are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use. An exercise addict feels reward and joy when exercising. When they stop exercising, 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, such as 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.

People who feel pressure to stay in shape are at risk of developing exercise addiction. And people who are overweight and set out on an extreme weight loss regimen may also 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.

Common symptoms of exercise addiction include:

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

Exercise addiction isn’t always easy to diagnose. Most exercise addicts don’t see anything wrong with their behavior and don’t report it. It is also not a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which means that there are not specific diagnostic criteria to use in its diagnosis.

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 demonstrating abnormal exercise patterns.

In most cases, self-control is necessary to treat exercise addiction. An addict acknowledges that they have a problem and takes steps to control exercise activity.

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 to gain control of the desire to exercise.

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 obsessed with exercising talk to your doctor about what you can do.

Mental and physical dedication can treat exercise addiction. Exercise addicts should avoid drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and other substances that can be addictive.

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