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Exercise addiction: when does working out become compulsive?

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Loving a workout is harmless – but it pays to know the signs of over exercising to stop it becoming an addiction. 

When it comes to exercise, more is better. At least, that’s what the current narrative around training would have you believe. Despite the fact that the science doesn’t support the ‘no rest days’ theory (the health benefits of walking plateau after 7,000 steps, and more than 20 minutes of HIIT a day is linked with chronic stress), there is a pressure to keep moving more.

But did you know that overtraining can be linked with exercise addiction? “Exercise addiction is viewed annoyingly positively in society,” says personal trainer Hannah Lewin, who specialises in non-aesthetic-focused fitness and eating disorder recovery. “If someone says they are exercising extremely, the general consensus is ‘wow that’s amazing’ rather than ‘is that too much?’.”

But for Lewin and other practitioners, too much of a good thing really does exist when it comes to exercise.

Can you be addicted to exercise?

While ‘exercise addiction’ isn’t yet a clinical diagnosis as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is widely recognised among practitioners as a behavioural addiction. That means people who live with the condition can exhibit behaviour that becomes obsessive and compulsive, and their reliance on the activity can cause dysfunction in their life.

The prevalence is pretty low, with studies suggesting that up to 7% of regular exercisers are at risk of exercise addiction or around 0.3–0.5% of the adult general population

The causes of exercise addiction are little known. According to a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Environmental Research of Public Health, exercise addiction is linked with caffeine use, over-shopping and an obsession with work. Researchers also found that compulsive exercise can also be found in up to 48% of people suffering from eating disorders. 

A woman checking her phone and watch for exercise stats
Exercise addiction impacts up 7% of exercisers

However, exercise can be an addiction in its own right. What may start as a positive, feel-good hobby for some can escalate due to an obsession with the perceived ‘good’ outcomes of training such as weight loss, immunity support and boosted mental health. Interestingly, the chase for endorphins can be a cause of exercise addiction; according to a 2020 report from the Journal of Mental Health, regular exercisers can end up having “to exercise more to trigger chemical release which describes reward-seeking behaviour.”

“Social media is great for lots of reasons but I definitely think people are absorbing too much content all about getting it done, never missing a Monday and never regretting a workout,” says Lewin. “While lots of this messaging is probably meant with the best of intentions, it can actually be quite aggressive. However, it’s something that can occur without any outside influencer and something you can end up being obsessive about without friends or social media pushing it on you.” 

What are the symptoms of exercise addiction?

Prioritising exercise for your mental or physical health isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is upping your routine to train for a race or scheduling a spin class for pure enjoyment. According to Dr Rebecca Robinson, an exercise physiologist, exercise is a healthy habit for most active people. Addiction isn’t just about enjoying a run, but “describes dependence on exercise which can actually damage our health, wellbeing and social life. Much like with other activities and behaviours, exercising becomes a problem when it starts to control the exerciser, rather than the other way round.”

According to Lewin: “the main sign of exercise addiction is still feeling the need to exercise when there’s something meaning that I can’t. For example, if it’s bucketing with snow outside but you’re still adamant you need to run, or if your body is fatigued or injured yet you have to go to the gym.

“Of course, there is a fine line in the sand between being dedicated enough to exercise when you can’t really be arsed versus feeling like you have to complete a workout because of these quite serious factors. The other thing to look out for is mood swings: if you feel irritable and angry during times that you can’t train, it’s quite a key sign.”

A 2002 paper by researchers at the University of Florida attempted to define the symptoms of exercise addiction according to similar scales for recognised illnesses. They found they key signs are:

  • Increased tolerance: needing more exercise to feel the same sense of accomplishment
  • A withdrawal effect: experiencing negative effects such as anxiety or sleep problems in the absence of exercise
  • A lack of control: being unable to reduce exercise or stop exercising
  • Changing intentions: an inability to stick to the intended routine and constantly doing more than the planned amount
  • Increasing time: spending a long time planning for, engaging in and recovering from exercise
  • Limiting other activities: social life, work and other recreational activities suffer or are stopped as a result of exercise
  • Continuing training: despite knowing it’s creating problems, you continue exercising anyway

How to deal with exercise addiction

“For those who think they might be at risk of developing an addiction to exercise, the first thing I recommend doing is changing the type of training you’re doing,” says Lewin. “Trying something new is a good way to change your motivation for exercise and break the cycle.”

Dr Robinson adds: “All change starts with recognition. Checking in on yourself – or anyone you’re worried about – on their attitudes towards training if you’re worried.

“One helpful intervention is cognitive behavioural therapy that can help us to become more flexible with plans and develop coping skills rather than relying on exercise. Treatment for exercise addiction is best managed by a mental health professional and there are now clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who specialise in sport.”

If you think that you might seriously be suffering with compulsive behaviours, talk to your GP. Some eating disorder charities, such as BEAT, may be able to help, or visit Addictions UK or The Priory for help with compulsive behaviours.

“Dealing with an exercise addiction isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but reassessing your attitude towards activity is really important,” reminds Lewin. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).