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Passion or Problem? When Exercise Becomes an Addiction

Exercise is great for us, but can it become too much of a good thing? Contributor Katherine Schreiber shares her personal story of exercise addiction and how it's changed her relationship to fitness.
Passion or Problem? When Exercise Becomes an Addiction
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Greatist Op-Eds analyze what’s making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. The thoughts expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect Greatist’s outlook.

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Let’s not beat around the fitness bush here. There’s no denying I’m legitimately addicted to exercise. Yet few people (myself included) fully understand this "healthy" mania that researchers estimate affects 0.3 to 0.5 percent of the population.

When I acknowledge the ridiculousness of my gym schedule to others, their response typically involves laughter followed by some variation of, “Gee, if I could have any addiction, I’d want it to be that one!” I usually smile politely and internally seethe. But even I can’t deny the element of hilarity in how out of control my daily routines have become.

The many iterations of my rigid fitness schedule — including but not limited to two hour-long sequences of the same set of yoga postures every single day, to a minimum 400 calorie burn on an elliptical machine, or a twenty-five-minute hike up a Stairmaster followed by a thirty-minute session on a Cybex climber — has quite literally controlled my life for the past ten years.

I’ve ended relationships, left jobs, lost friends, not gone on vacations, alienated family members, significantly pissed off fellow gym-goers, and sustained some seriously un-fun injuries. And it's all in the obsessive-compulsive interest of off-setting a neurotic hunch that my entire world will implode if I don’t complete some outlandish routine seven times a week, if not more.

How Healthy Becomes Harmful

Addict or not, exercise undeniably makes everyone feel better. Just ten minutes of physical exertion has been shown to reduce depression, improve our mood, dial down anxiety, make us less angry, relieve bodily aches and pains, and reduce mortality [1].

Improved physical strength, endurance, and a tighter waistline are additional pros of getting our gym on. And then there’s the ego-stroking thrill of broadcasting our fitness achievements via the web, around the office, or even over a few drinks with friends.

There’s nothing wrong with incorporating these dollops of “fit-spiration” into our daily decisions to be active. But problems arise when the pursuit of these awesome payoffs starts taking over our lives

Exercise addiction often starts as a peer-encouraged means of achieving a happier state: It wards off tension [2]. It dampens the impact of stresses at work or school. It takes the edge off self-consciousness. Or it kicks off that runner’s high, which makes you seriously think you just might be super(wo)man.

Gradually, these benefits become increasingly difficult to obtain from the initial amount of exercise you first engaged in. You begin avoiding other ways to manage icky emotions, feel okay about yourself, or find the motivation to work towards non-fitness goals.

Next thing you know, you’re regularly cancelling plans with friends to stay longer at the gym. The concept of taking a day off makes you want to cry, and you’re devoting so much mental energy to planning your next workout that your job performance is waning. You’re not sleeping well, your temper’s grown astonishingly short, and you’re desperately trying to ignore the achy requests from your body to chill the f*** out.

Meanwhile, everyone’s telling you, you look UH-mazing!!!

“When you start to lose control over a behavior — when you find yourself routinely exceeding a pre-planned limit or repeatedly spending longer than you intended doing it — that’s a key sign you’re addicted,” explains Marilyn Freimuth, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Addicted? Recognizing Destructive Behavior Before It’s Too Late. Not taking enough time off to heal injuries and being unable to keep exercise out of your mind during non-fitness engagements are additional signs the behavior is bordering on unhealthy.

Other indicators? Feeling guilty about how much you exercise, craving more and more exercise to achieve its initial effects, and attempting to exercise in the same way or at the same frequency day after day after day.

To make sense of it all, exercise psychologists Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., (a Greatist Expert) and Danielle Symons Downs, Ph.D., designed an Exercise Dependence Scale to assess individuals’ risks for exercise addiction. Modeled after the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorder’s protocol for identifying substance addictions, Hausenblas and Symons Downs’s “EDS” weighs seven factors:

  1. Tolerance: Needing more and more of the activity to achieve its initial effects.
  2. Withdrawal: Increased agitation, fatigue, and tension when not exercising.
  3. “Intention Effect”: Exercising for longer than intended on most trips to the gym.
  4. Lack of control: Difficulty scaling back the duration and intensity of exercise.
  5. Time Spent”: Funneling exorbitant chunks of our day and night towards fitness-related activities.
  6. Reduction of Other Pursuits: Avoidance of social engagements that don’t involve exercise, cancelling plans, or showing up late for work in order to exercise longer.
  7. Continuance Despite Injury: Not taking enough time off to heal despite your doctor repeatedly raising judgmental eyebrows.

(Curious readers may also want to refer to the Exercise Addiction Inventory, a shorter assessment tool designed by sports psychologist Mark Griffiths, Ph.D., that some experts believe is easier to administer.)

Meeting some of the above criteria doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the throes of addiction. “A lot of people have a healthy attitude towards exercise, choose to become trainers, or work at a gym, and that’s fine,” explains Hausenblas. “It’s when exercise becomes all consuming — when you start losing friends, forgoing social activities or reneging work opportunities — that your workout schedule becomes cause for concern.”

Studies suggest personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, and low agreeability may raise an individuals’ risk of developing a compulsive connection to physical activity. After all, extraverts are more energetic and inclined toward excitement; neurotics are more preoccupied with appearance and health; and less agreeable folks are more competitive, self-centered, and stridently mistrusting of anyone who tells them to slow down. (I apologize in advance, friends. Do forgive me.)

Can It Be Treated?

As per the latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), exercise dependence qualifies as one of many behavioral addictions. People looking for help, Freimuth recommends, might consider seeking mental health care professionals specializing in harm reduction. This therapeutic approach doesn’t mandate patients rigidly swear off problematic activities altogether. Rather, it helps them more flexibly integrate the activity they’ve taken to an extreme into their everyday lives.

I’ll admit, exercise isn’t the first thing I’ve developed an excessive fondness for. And yes, I suppose it’s amongst the healthier options of things to latch onto. Working out grants me the sense of control and confidence I’ve sorely lacked in my life outside the gym, as well as the reassurance that I’ve done something to render myself “worthy” of others’ admiration and attention. Getting a move on also affords me a fine sense of focus and mental clarity, a break from life’s upsets, and an outlet for sometimes boundless energy.

The problem isn’t that I go to the gym to feel better about myself; it’s that feeling better about myself now requires at least two or more hours of running, lifting, squatting, lunging, or vinyasaing. My exercise dependence has brought me more injuries than health boosts, and it’s actually amplified my anxiety. It’s also forced me into a isolated status that is anything but as pretty, impressive, or empowering as it may appear. And it wasn’t until a few months ago that I started asking for help.

Thankfully, there are people out there who’ve been concerned about me for quite some time now, who still love me, and who will listen to my problems. Truth is: No piece of fitness equipment can strengthen the parts of me I feel are too weak to be seen by society. Nor can any cardiovascular routine slim down the aspects of myself I fear might be too much for others to handle. And with the help of a trusted therapist, an incredibly patient and loving boyfriend, my parents, and my true friends, I’m learning to accept, and take a stab at enjoying, those segments of “me” that I’ve long tried to suffocate.

I highly encourage anyone who thinks they might be using exercise in an unhealthy manner to take my lead and reach out for support.

Do you or anyone you know suffer from exercise addiction? Let us know in the comments below and tweet the author @KTschreib.

Works Cited +

  1. Exercise duration and mood state: how much is enough to feel better?Hansen, C.J., Stevens, L.C., Coast, J.R. Northern Arizona University. Health Pyschology, 2001. 20:267.
  2. A meta-analysis on the anxiety-reducing effect of acute and chronic exercise: outcomes and mechanismsPetruzzello, S.J., Landers, A.C., Hatfield, B.D., et al. Sports Medicine, 1991. 11:143–182.

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