OK, so we keep getting told we must exercise regularly in order to stay fit and generally healthy … and possibly stave off a host of diseases. But when does exercise become too much of a good thing? When does it become a full-blown addiction? Let’s find out…

On the surface, being addicted to exercise appears to be great for your health. After all, there is way too much obesity in the world. But there really can be a negative side. US exercise physiologists Heather Hausenblas and Danielle Symons Downs compiled what they call the Exercise Dependence Scale to assess a person’s risk for exercise addiction. The scale was modelled after the protocol for identifying substance addictions, and it’s quite enlightening.

The following seven symptoms of exercise addiction were assessed.

1. Tolerance: You need more and more to achieve the same effects.

Fitness addicts often require more and more physical activity over time: whether to chase a ‘buzz’, sense of accomplishment, feeling of calmness or use to it as a form of escapism. For example, they push and push themselves beyond what’s considered normal viable goals for their ability and age.

Training and participating in triathlons, marathons and other demanding endurance events definitely doesn’t make you an exercise addict, but those with compulsive tendencies do tend to gravitate toward these types of activities, often in an attempt to mask their addiction. After all, in these circles, it’s socially accepted to exercise a great deal, for very long periods of time, says Hausenblas.

2. Withdrawal: Increased agitation, fatigue, and tension if you don’t exercise.

PhD student Mia Beck Lichtenstein from the University of Southern Denmark studied what happens when people who exercise regularly at an ordinary level start to obsess about working out and allow their training to take control over their lives. Almost 600 people participated in the study and 5.8 per cent of them could be defined as fitness addicts.

‘If someone who’s addicted to physical exercise is prevented from training, that person will experience withdrawal symptoms like restlessness, frustration and guilt,’ says Lichtenstein. ‘It’s comparable to alcoholism, where withdrawal symptoms play an incredibly large part in the addict’s social life, family life and working life.’

3. Intention Effect: Exercising for longer than intended on most trips to the gym.

The need to exercise can begin to interfere with work/school, personal relationships and other ways to have fun or be social. It’s common, for example, for a person who’s compulsive about exercise to spend more than hour in motion – even if the intent was 30 minutes – or much more than that. As a result, they might miss or arrive late to an important work event or social obligation, explains Hausenblas.

4. Lack of Control: Difficulty scaling back the duration and intensity of exercise.

Those fixated on exercise might find themselves unable to reduce or stop exercising for a certain period of time. For example, if they have an important work or social event to attend (such as a wedding), they will still find ways of working in as much exercise around the event, rather than take a day off. In fact, there could be no such thing as a ‘day off exercise’, and a simple 30-minute sprint on the treadmill won’t cut it.

5. Time Spent: Spending huge amounts of time on fitness related activities.

Exercise triggers the brain’s reward system – the same area of the brain affected by substance use – releasing dopamine, the body’s pleasure hormone, during a high-impact exercise session. This feel-good sensation is primarily what keeps an exercise addict coming back for more.

Addicts can spend an excessive amount of time working out, and thinking about, planning for and recovering from work-outs.

6. Reduction of Other Pursuits: Is exercising too much affecting other parts of your life? (social, work, relationships).

‘It can be difficult to manage family life and a job when you feel the need to exercise for 20-30 hours a week,’ says Lichtenstein. Therefore, the compulsion to exercise can interfere with work/school, personal relationships and other ways to have fun or be social.

7. Continuance Despite Injury: You train even when you are injured.

‘Fitness addicts are competitive perfectionists, so they work out in spite of illness and injuries. But this comes at a price,’ says Lichtenstein.

Overexercising stresses the body to the point of weakening the immune system, making people more prone to illness. Pushing yourself beyond your limits can also lead to muscle soreness, loss of appetite, headaches and problems sleeping. More serious effects can include joint pain and injuries, anaemia, weakening of the bones, and some women don’t have their periods for several years.

 

Just because a person meets one or two of the above symptoms doesn’t mean they’re completely addicted to exercise. But if you or someone you know is taking exercise beyond safe limits, perhaps it may be wise to see a sports psychologist. Visit the Australian Psychological Society to find an expert in your local area.

 

So, could you be addicted to exercise? Explain your addiction in the comments below.

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