Passion or Problem? When Exercise Becomes an Addiction

Passion or Problem? When Exercise Becomes an Addiction

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.

Photo: Bigstock

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 estimateaffects 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 .

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 A meta-analysis on the anxiety-reducing effect of acute and chronic exercise: outcomes and mechanisms. Petruzzello, S.J., Landers, A.C., Hatfield, B.D., et al. Sports Medicine, 1991. 11:143–182.. 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.)

I am sharing a portion of this article on my website here. You can read the original and FULL article when you follow the link –


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *