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The Risks of Exercise Addiction

Woman in sports bra and workout pants measuring her waist with measuring tape.
The urge to exercise regularly is certainly a trait more of us wish we had. But how can we distinguish enviable discipline from unhealthy compulsion? Here is what you should know about exercise addiction.

Regular exercise is an essential component of optimal physical and mental health. Countless studies have found that exercise helps regulate moodimprove focus and concentrationenhance sleep qualityincrease bone densitystrengthen musclesimprove circulationmanage weight, and enhance overall well-being. In fact, there aren’t many conditions that regular exercise won’t improve dramatically. So how can exercise addiction be a bad thing?

Exercise Addiction Risks

Exercise addiction is one of several addictive behaviors. Other behavioral addictions include compulsive gambling, compulsive shopping, video game addiction and sex addiction.

Compulsive exercise can lead to serious risks to mental and physical health. Moreover, the very nature of the addiction disorder can trigger dysfunction in relationships and work performance.

An addiction to exercise is when daily workouts cease being physically and mentally beneficial and start being disruptive and unhealthy, yet the person is unable to alter the harmful behaviors. The inability to adjust positively to negative circumstances is called maladaptive behavior.

Exercise addiction can result in severe physical and emotional damage, such as when the unrelenting physical strain leads to serious injury and illness. It can also contribute to disordered sleep and exacerbate co-occurring disorders. People who struggle with certain co-occurring disorders tend to have an increased risk of exercise addiction. These disorders include:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression

A person with an exercise addiction might recognize that their impulse to exercise has become destructive but will continue to engage in the behavior in secret because failing to exercise will lead to severe anxiety or other symptoms of mental distress.

Emotional and physical consequences of compulsive exercise include:

  • Bone density loss
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain in bones
  • Chronically sore joints
  • Chronically sore muscles
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Repeated injuries, strains, and fractures
  • Repeated respiratory infections

The physical risks of exercise addiction can become more urgent when combined with eating disorders. Complications might include:

  • Anemia
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Obstructed intestinal tract
  • Esophageal ruptures

How Can Exercise Be Addictive?

Exercise addiction often co-exists with other mental disorders, though it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine if one disorder was the causal factor.

However, standalone exercise addiction does exist. Exercise is known to trigger a reward response in the brain. People who exercise with a supportive community also experience additional pleasure responses. Though the social aspect might not be causal, it does pose recovery challenges.

Symptoms of exercise addiction are somewhat rare in the general global population – it is estimated to occur in approximately 0.5% of people worldwide. However, certain populations experience exercise addiction in greater numbers. Among people who go to the gym regularly, an estimated 8% experience exercise addiction symptoms. People with eating disorders are nearly 4 times more likely to have an exercise addiction than people without eating disorders.

People struggling with exercise addiction often experience symptoms that correspond with other types of addiction. These include the following:

  • Continually intensifying exercise to achieve the desired reward response
  • Anxiety when unable to exercise
  • Exercising secretly
  • Exercising even when doing so exacerbates physical illness or injuries
  • Abandoning personal or professional obligations to make time for exercise
  • Using exercise to control or suppress emotions

Exercise Addiction Treatment

While substance misuse and addiction disorder treatments strive to eliminate the damaging behaviors entirely, exercise addiction is different. It is possible to live a healthy, fulfilling, and happy life without ever consuming alcohol or illicit drugs. However, it is not possible to live a healthy and happy life without ever exercising. In fact, exercise is among the most effective treatment modalities for substance use disorder and certain behavioral addictions.

So, what can be done?

Research suggests that psychological interventions yield the most effective outcomes when addressing exercise addiction. The objective of any exercise addiction intervention is exercise reduction, not elimination. Moreover, effective therapeutics will lower injury risk from excessive training.

Because every individual case differs significantly, every treatment plan will be unique. However, the overwhelming majority of people struggling with exercise addiction will respond favorably to cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses patterns of thought and behavior that lead to compulsive actions. With intensive therapeutic intervention, clients are empowered with the tools they need to recognize the internal and environmental triggers that make them vulnerable to addictive behaviors. Working collaboratively with their recovery team, people with exercise addiction and co-occurring disorders will develop effective management strategies designed to restore rational perception. By having the techniques necessary to recognize negative thought patterns, clients can effectively respond to destructive impulses healthily and productively.

If you struggle with exercise addiction, please contact the team at The Raleigh House to begin your journey to physical and emotional recovery.

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