Exercise addiction isn’t a formal diagnosis, but some people may use the phrase to refer to a compulsive urge to work out intensely and frequently despite possible adverse consequences. Help is available.

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Exercise addiction is a controversial phrase. On one hand, some people experience symptoms related to excessive exercising that may be considered similar to those of substance use disorder and other addictions. On the other hand, the official handbook used by most U.S. mental health professionals does not recognize such a diagnosis.

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR)” refers to exercise addiction as an excessive behavioral pattern or behavioral addiction.

The manual also explains the phrase “exercise addiction” isn’t included formally because there is not enough evidence that shows excessive exercising as a mental health disorder or a list of characteristic signs and symptoms.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) refers to addiction as a chronic disease that involves brain circuits, genes, environmental influences, and your own life experiences. But research about the neurological and genetic basis of compulsive exercising is limited, so defining it as an addiction is challenging.

The lack of a clear definition doesn’t imply your experience isn’t valid or real, though. If you believe you or someone you know experience distressing behaviors related to working out, help is available.

Because of the lack of formal diagnostic criteria, it may be challenging to define exercise addiction or list specific symptoms.

Based on a clinical definition of addiction and the criteria used in the DSM-5-TR to assess behavioral addictions, like gambling, these symptoms may be possible:

  • persistent and intense exercising habits that lead to impairment or distress
  • unsuccessful attempts to reduce the intensity or frequency of exercising
  • irritability or other mood changes when not able to work out
  • recurrent preoccupation (persistent thoughts) related to working out
  • tendency to lean on exercise to manage stress and other emotional states
  • relationships, school, work, or self-care are often in jeopardy because of exercise-related habits
  • inability or difficulty reducing or stopping exercise despite negative experiences or consequences like sports injuries or muscular pain
  • hiding frequency or intensity of exercise habits or events from others

You may also feel a hard-to-resist urge to exercise at odd times of the day, even if you already did.

You may have heard the expression, “How do I stop being obsessed with exercise?” but obsessions are something different.

Exercise addiction, or addictions in general, are not included in the list of symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the DSM-5-TR, OCD is a mental health condition that involves two main symptoms:

  • Obsessions are persistent and intrusive (difficult to manage) thoughts and images about one or more things or events. They typically cause emotional and mental distress and interfere with daily tasks and interactions. For example, fear of being exposed to germs.
  • Compulsions refer to urges to repeat specific rituals or actions in an attempt to decrease distress caused by obsessions. For example, washing your hands every few minutes.

Addictive behaviors aren’t a symptom of OCD, nor can they be explained as a compulsion because they typically don’t respond to obsessions.

In the context of behavioral addictions, the phrase “compulsive behaviors” may refer to persistent and repetitive actions that are difficult to stop.

OCD and addiction may co-exist. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains they often do.

A 2022 study also found that people with OCD are more likely to report symptoms of behavioral addiction compared to those without OCD. Exercise addiction wasn’t on the list of compulsive behaviors, while internet, pornography, and sex addiction had a high prevalence.

Still, it’s possible for someone who lives with OCD also to develop a behavioral addiction related to working out. Only a mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis.

Exercise can be a coping mechanism for some people, although it may not always be a healthy one.

Coping refers to any thoughts and actions you engage in as an attempt to manage and decrease emotional and mental stress. These coping mechanisms may help you address the cause of the distress, reduce negative emotions, learn from the problem, and seek support.

However, maladaptive coping is also possible. This refers to strategies that help you disengage, avoid, and suppress the problem and related emotions. Maladaptive coping styles have been associated with mental health challenges.

Exercising to take a breather after a difficult day at work before thinking about solutions may help you cope with stress. Working out to avoid thinking about the problem or to skip a day at work may signal a maladaptive coping style.

If you believe working out helps avoid stressful situations, consider working with a healthcare professional. They can help you explore possible causes and steps to follow.

Everyone is different, and a regular workout routine for you may be too intense or prolonged for someone else. But if any of these signs of exercise addiction are persistent, consider reaching out to a mental health professional:

  • irritability, anxiety, or low mood when you can’t work out
  • difficulty or inability to stop working out even if you have an injury, pain, or other physical limitations
  • negative consequences in your relationships, finances, or self-care routine because of exercising habits
  • difficulty or inability to stop working out despite the negative consequences
  • difficulty managing your urges to exercise, even at odd hours of the day or after working out already
  • skipping work, school, or other responsibilities to work out
  • exercise is the only way you feel you can manage stress and negative emotions

Another common sign may be having to work out harder and longer each time to experience the same rewards.

Research on the causes of compulsive exercising or exercise addiction is limited.

Possible causes may include a combination of the following:

Exercise addiction treatment may depend on your symptoms and underlying causes.

Working with a mental health professional is highly encouraged. They can listen to your concerns and help you explore possible ways to address them with psychotherapy, like:

If you or someone you know is considering self-harm,
you’re not alone.

You can access free support right away with these resources:

  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line. Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Was this helpful?

Exercise addiction isn’t a formal diagnosis in the DSM-5-TR, the reference handbook most U.S. mental health professionals use. But what you feel and experience is valid and real.

Possible symptoms of exercise addiction include not being able to stop working out despite adverse consequences in your relationships and other areas, experiencing urges to work out at odd times of the day, feeling distressed when not able to exercise, and having to work out harder and longer each time.

Treatment is available for behavioral addictions like compulsive exercising. A mental health professional can help you explore possible causes and ways to address your distress. You’re not alone.