Signs & Causes of Exercise Addiction, According to Experts
Unfortunately, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. We all know how great exercise can be and how important it is to lead a healthy life. But when does it become too much? How do you know if you’re addicted to working out? And how do you overcome your obsession to regain a healthy balance?
We cover all of this and more with insights from experts in this complete guide to exercise addiction.
Yes, you can be addicted to exercise. Along with social media, caffeine, tanning, shopping, gambling, and other well-known addictions, it’s possible to develop an addiction to exercise. Becoming addicted to exercise is not limited to one form of exercise. A person can become addicted to any form of exercise, including cardio, weight lifting, stretching, and others, or it can be an addiction to all forms of fitness in general.
What Is An Addiction to Working Out Called?
Being addicted to working out is called exercise addiction. It’s also tied to the terms exercise dependence, compulsive exercise, excessive exercise, anorexia athletica, and muscle dysmorphia. Those addicted to exercise may be referred to as exercise addicts or health addicts.
Let’s dive into what this means in greater detail.
Exercise addiction is an unhealthy obsession with fitness and physical activity. It’s categorized as a behavioral addiction that can be similar to other forms of substance dependence.
Dr. Ketan Parmar, a certified Addiction Psychiatrist at Clinical Sports, defines exercise addiction as “an all-consuming preoccupation with physical activity, involving intense engagement in exercise beyond what is necessary for health purposes or what would be considered normal social behavior.”
Addiction to exercise is a behavioral issue, often rooted in other issues. Dr. Masica Jordan, LLC, President and CEO of Jordan Peer Recovery, explains that exercise addiction is “often a result of body image disorders, eating disorders, and a family history of addiction.”
She explains that exercise causes the release of certain chemicals in the nervous system and that these chemicals create a sense of pleasure or reward.
“Exercise addiction may be, in part, a dependence on this pleasure response because exercise releases endorphins and dopamine. These are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use.” So when a person is addicted to exercise, it’s because they feel reward and joy during and after exercise.
Exercise addiction is commonly suffered in conjunction with other disorders, such as a mental disorder and an intellectual disability. The combination of addictions is referred to as co-occurring disorders. According to Dr. Jordan, “research suggests 15 percent of individuals experiencing exercise addiction also are dependent on illicit or legal substances. An estimated 25 percent may have other addictions, such as a shopping addiction.”
With this in mind, it’s clear to see that exercise addiction runs deep and is a complex matter to understand.
Similar to exercise burnout, you might not realize you're addicted to exercise. Since everyone experiences life through their own lens, you might be showing signs of exercise addictions to others, but from your own perspective, it’s just your normal routine.
According to Dr. Jordan, exercise addiction traits are similar to those of other addictions, which include:
- Obsessing over the behavior / repeatedly thinking about exercising.
- Engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm, causing injury, or knowingly putting yourself at risk for physical harm.
- Engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop.
- Engaging in the behavior in secret.
Exercise Addiction Quiz
If you think you might be addicted to exercise or you know someone who might be, take this short quiz to help you better understand if you’re / they’re addicted or not.
- Do you think about exercise multiple times a day?
- Do you work out multiple times a day?
- Do you avoid making other plans in order to exercise?
- When you make plans with people, is it mostly to work out together?
- Do you lie about how often you exercise?
- Do you work out even if you’re injured or experiencing physical pain?
- Do you find yourself exercising even when you’ve planned to take a day off?
- Do you replace active recovery days with high-intensity workouts?
- Do you exceed 150 minutes of moderate to intense activity plus two strength training sessions per week?
- Do you exercise for more than an hour each day?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you (or someone you know) might be struggling with exercise addiction. Keep reading to learn about the steps that should be taken to aid in recovery.
You can overcome your exercise addiction by setting a quit date, changing your environment, speaking to a therapist or licensed addictions counselor, and leaning on a recovery coach or friend for support. Below are the details of how exactly to fix your exercise addiction.
How to Overcome Exercise Addiction
- Acknowledge the addiction. The first step to any recovery program is to recognize that there’s something to solve. Coming to a place of acceptance is often the hardest step. Once there, the healing can begin.
- Set a quit date. It can be helpful to choose a meaningful date to begin the healing journey from excessive exercise, like an anniversary, birthday, or new year. Selecting a date also gives you time to mentally prepare for the healing journey.
- Set S.M.A.R.T. fitness goals. Being realistic about your fitness goals is one of the best approaches to a healthy fitness routine.
- See a therapist. A trained therapist who specializes in addiction can suggest culturally responsive and evidence-based resources and tools that work for your individual needs. This includes addressing underlying issues that cause the addiction to exercise.
- Work with a personal trainer. Working with a certified trainer will help you follow a balanced workout plan that doesn’t over or under-work you.
- See a peer recovery coach or find accountability in a trusted friend who you can share your story with and text or reach out to when you’re in relapse mode. Seek support from others who are also dealing with exercise addiction. Joining a local group or an online forum can provide valuable camaraderie and motivation for recovery.
- Check in often. To help prevent relapse, it’s important to frequently check in with yourself, your buddy, and your counselor or therapist to ensure that you’re not falling back into old habits and are properly addressing your emotions instead of bottling them up.
- Watch for warning signs of old patterns repeating. Being self-aware helps you identify early signs of falling back into old habits. Signs include obsessive thoughts, canceling other social plans or commitments to work out, working out at home more often than agreed upon by your trainer or counselor, and spending longer bouts of time working out.
- Focus on other hobbies. Focusing on other interests or learning new hobbies can help you to replace consuming thoughts of exercise and use time wisely during recovery (and after).
- Incorporate active recovery into your routine. Incorporating active recovery to your workout routine offers a ton of variety to your week and gives you the opportunity to discover new and interesting forms of physical activity that you may not have tried otherwise. Active recovery can include activities like yoga, Tai Chi, swimming, going for a brisk walk, foam rolling, or stretching.
- Incorporate rest days into your routine. If you’re recovering from exercise addiction, it might be hard to imagine taking a full day off of activity, but you deserve it. Taking a rest day offers your mind and body the space to fully unwind and relax. These days can be filled with meditation, journaling, reading, cooking, visiting family and friends, doing a puzzle, playing board games, playing video games, or going on a road trip. These are important days when it comes to your physical and mental health and leading a balanced life, free from exercise addiction.
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It’s important to watch for exercise deprivation during the recovery phase. Exercise deprivation is a state of feeling withdrawn from or lacking enough fitness. Exercise addicts may feel a loss of control in regulating their time spent on physical fitness.
You may develop withdrawal symptoms such as depression, restlessness, frustration, anger, confusion, fatigue, and guilt. They may also become confrontational or continue to exercise at the same frequency, even with an injury.
If someone is struggling with exercise deprivation, it’s important to remind them that recovery takes time, and it’s not always linear. They may feel great one day and awful the next. It’s natural to have ebbs and flows with their feelings and emotions, and they should be reminded to keep doing their best, ride the waves, and not be easy on themselves. They should also seek additional support if feelings of exercise deprivation persist.
The Road to Recovery
The most important thing to do when it comes to exercise addiction is to work with a licensed professional. They’re the best first point of contact on your road to recovery.
If you’re interested in using lululemon Studio as part of your healing journey, speak to your counselor about how to best use it in conjunction with your recovery plan. Our active recovery, rest day, and one-on-one personal training sessions may line up with your plan.