Exercise Addiction

Posted: May 9, 2011 in Psychology

Anyone who’s felt the full-body buzz and calm mind that comes after a real soaker of a workout knows that the feeling is comparable to a great glass of wine in the way it will keep you coming back time and again. And research bears it out—exercise has an undeniable effect on feel-good hormones. In other words, those happy feeling are real, and some would even propose that those feelings are as addictive as a drug like heroin.

As a fitness professional, I consciously avoid using the word “addiction” to describe most people’s relationship with exercise and combat it whenever the word is thrown around casually. A person with a healthy but passionate relationship with exercise might make sacrifices of time, money, sweat, sleep, tears… and even the occasional bloodletting… that others find hard to understand, but that are firmly on the spectrum of “normal” and “healthy.”

Yet, while many people struggle to exercise as much as they would like, there are others—like Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who “came out” about his struggles with exercising too much in the March issue of Men’s Health magazine—who might be using exercise in an unhealthy way.

There are some red flags to keep an eye out for if you are concerned that your exercise habit might be becoming problematic:

It’s impacting your family or work obligations. If you find yourself getting in fights with your spouse or missing work to get a workout in, or if you are working yourself to a point of not being able to be fully present for those responsibilities, it’s time to rethink your priorities.

You are working out to the point of injury or diminished returns. Remember, health and fitness adaptations and improvements happen when you give yourself the time to recover.  If you are constantly going longer/harder/faster in the search for that endorphin high, you will start breaking down your system.  Chronic injuries, fatigue, depression are all signs of something called “overreaching,” which, if not corrected, can lead to a condition known as “overtraining syndrome” that can take years to recover from.

You feel an overwhelming amount of guilt or regret over missed workouts. We all have those days when something gets in the way of our workout. When that happens, it’s natural to find yourself really missing the energy and focus you would have gotten from it. But you probably want to rethink your relationship with exercise if one missed day finds you dealing with overwhelming feelings of guilt, panic, or irrational fear of lost fitness, or if you simply cannot “miss a day” and find yourself working out in the middle of the night or when ill/injured or in other situations where a skipped day would have been the wiser choice. You might even suffer withdrawal symptoms such as sleep problems, changes in appetite, mood disturbances and depression.

You are getting in financial trouble. Some sports are notoriously costly. Driving a junker car so that you can have a top-of-the-line triathlon bike is one thing, but proceed with caution if you are skipping out on your mortgage or accruing high-interest debt to feed your habit.

You are using exercise for unhealthy reasons, or taking drugs to further your goals. You are definitely well into the danger zone and would be wise to speak with a mental health professional if you are using exercise to make up for binge eating behaviors, or taking illegal substances to further your performance or physique goals.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “moderation is key.” This applies even moreso to fitness pursuits where progress absolutely cannot happen without an appropriate period of rest and recovery.  If you find yourself wondering whether your relationship with exercise might have crossed into the unhealthy zone, I encourage you to speak with a doctor or mental health professional.

Resources: Heather Hawkins Addicted to Exercise? How to tell when healthy habits go too far Retrieved from, http://health.yahoo.net/experts/fitnessforreallife/addicted-exercise-how-tell-when-healthy-habits-go-too-far

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