Exercise Addiction: When Healthy Becomes Hazardous

Throughout the past several decades, the American culture has grown obsessed with exercise. The widespread belief is that the only thing better than one hour of exercise, is two, perhaps three.

This perception has only intensified today in our obesity-obsessed culture. Everyone, especially children, are encouraged to “get moving.” Whereas there is absolutely no doubt that regular activity is beneficial on many levels, our love affair with exercise can have negative consequences that few understand. This comes in the form of addiction.

Interestingly, if asked, the vast majority of people would undoubtedly say that addiction is confined to drugs and alcohol; something as unilaterally positive as exercise could not possibly prove harmful.
They would be wrong.

Exercise addiction is referred to as a process addiction; this category of addiction includes such activities as gambling, work, or shopping. When a person engages in a particular behavior, such as prolonged running, opioids and dopamine are released in the brain. The act of running is then associated with feelings of euphoria, well being, and diminished negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, or loneliness.

As with many addictions, dependence on exercise can start harmlessly enough. For example, imagine a young woman just entering college far from home. It is a time of high stress, both academically and socially; to say nothing of her possible fear of weight gain. She starts running fairly long distances. Not only does she achieve the runners “high” due to the chemicals released in her brain, but the more she runs, the less she thinks, the less she feels. She ultimately becomes dependent on the activity, chasing the euphoria, not unlike a person addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Possibly the worst aspect of exercise addiction is its benign nature. If an individual is always intoxicated or another person has an arm riddled with track marks, then the addiction is obvious; friends and family might intercede. But a person rigorously training for a marathon or spending hours every day in a gym rarely raises an eyebrow. Any exercise, even when extreme, is nearly always seen as healthy, even laudable; therefore, this person only receives validation and reinforcement.

The prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is about 3%. It comes as no surprise that 39 to 48% of people suffering from eating disorders also suffer from exercise addiction. Those who have experienced trauma are also candidates for this disorder. Not only does exercise offer the “high,” which is positive, but it allows the person an opportunity to escape painful thoughts and emotions connected to trauma. Excessive exercise dulls the mind. To a severely traumatized person, numbness is considered an optimal state.

The Importance of Mindfulness

Like any addiction, an addiction to exercise may be difficult to break; but it can be done. Embracing mindfulness skills can be highly beneficial. Mindfulness is defined as learning to control your mind so it does not control you.

In a process addiction, thoughts and urges become ritualistic and habitual over time. Mindfulness requires an individual to notice the thought then to consider responding to that thought in an entirely new way.

Imagine a woman who has always run 5 miles the day after having a dessert; she must do it to “pay” for the calorie intake. Therefore, if she orders chocolate cake on a Tuesday night, on Wednesday morning, she will have the thought, “I must run 5 miles today.” Being mindful, she can pause and recognize that this as merely a knee-jerk thought instead of an imperative command. Essentially, she discovers she has choice.

Application of mindfulness with exercise is about choosing what is healthy for our body over what our mind dictates; it means listening to our body’s needs and limitations.

Compulsive exercise is a way of escaping the experience of emotions associated with the present or past life events. Conversely, mindful exercise allows people to focus on being in the present and to engage in exercise with a healthy motive.

Exercise addiction is serious; it can result in severe medical and physical consequences, broken relationships, disability, and even premature death. Therefore, if you or someone you know is caught in this addiction, please seek help. In time, reasonable, healthy, and beneficial exercise can be reintroduced as part of a balanced life.

 Identifying Exercise Addiction

There are ways to identify exercise addition if you are unsure if you or someone you know is suffering. In order for anything to be given the addiction label, certain criteria must be met. Exercise addiction tends to meet all the standards required by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the “go-to” reference source for those in the behavioral health field. These criteria include:

• Tolerance: The amount of exercise must be increased to achieve the desired effect.
• Withdrawal: Negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problems ensue when exercise is curtailed.
• Lack of Control: Attempts to reduce the level of exercise fail.
• Intension: The person is unable to adhere to a normal exercise routine.
• Time: An inordinate amount of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise.
• Reduction in Other Activities: Social, occupational, and/or recreational activities are reduced.
• Continuance: Exercise continues despite negative physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal relationship consequences.

By Kim Dennis MD, CEDS
CEO/Medical Director
Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center