Can You Get Addicted to Exercise? 8 Warning Signs

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

At present, exercise addiction is not officially recognized in any medical or psychological diagnostic frameworks such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or the World Health Association’s International Classification of Diseases. However, there has been a lot of research into whether exercise can be classed as a bona fide addiction.

In spite of the widespread usage of the term ‘exercise addiction’ there are many terminologies that describe excessive exercise syndrome. Such terms include exercise dependence, obligatory exercising, exercise abuse, and compulsive exercise. Exercise addiction has been conceptualized as a behavioral addiction. The symptoms and consequences of exercise addiction have often been characterized by six common components of addiction: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, personal conflict, and relapse.

For some people, exercise addiction is a primary problem in the person’s life whereas in others it can be a secondary problem as a consequence of other psychological dysfunctions (like eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa).-Mark Griffiths

For some people, exercise addiction is a primary problem in the person’s life whereas in others it can be a secondary problem as a consequence of other psychological dysfunctions (like eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa). In the former case, the dysfunction is considered as primary exercise addiction, while in the latter case it is termed as secondary exercise addiction because it co-occurs with another dysfunction. The differentiating feature is that in primary exercise addiction the objective is the exercise itself, whereas in secondary exercise addiction the objective is weight loss, where excessive exercise is one of the primary means in achieving the desired objective.

woman with exercise addiction sitting on ball holding dumbellsThe incentive or motive for fulfilling planned exercise is an important distinguishing characteristic between addicted and non-addicted exercisers. The reason people exercise is often for an intangible reward such as feeling in shape, looking good, being with friends, staying healthy, building muscles, losing weight, etc. The personal experience of the anticipated reward reinforces and strengthens the exercise behavior. Committed exercisers maintain their exercise for benefiting or gaining from their activity and thus, their behavior is motivated via positive reinforcement. However, empirical research has demonstrated that addicted exercisers have to exercise in order to avoid negative feelings or withdrawal. The individual’s exercise may become a chore that has to be fulfilled, or otherwise an unwanted event would occur (such as the inability to cope with stress, or gaining weight, becoming moody, etc.). Every time a person undertakes behavior to avoid something negative, bad, and/or unpleasant, the motive behind that behavior acts as a negative reinforcement. In these situations, the person feels they have to do it rather than wanting to do it.

Mood modification is a key factor among the symptoms of exercise addiction and suggests there is a self-medication aspect that facilitates the distinction between normal and abnormal exercise.-Mark Griffiths

Mood modification is a key factor among the symptoms of exercise addiction and suggests there is a self-medication aspect that facilitates the distinction between normal and abnormal exercise. Addicts do not simply exercise to experience the joy of it, but rather to escape negative, unpleasant feelings and everyday difficulties.

The Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI; see Figure 1 below) is one of the most recent and most widely used screening tools in the research area of exercise addiction, primarily because of its brevity and excellent psychometric properties (i.e., reliability and validity). The EAI comprises only six statements, each corresponding to one of the symptoms in the ’components’ model of addiction. Each statement is rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The EAI cut-off score for individuals considered at-risk of exercise addiction is 24 out of 30.

To date, the only nationally representative study examining exercise addiction is a study that I co-authored with some Hungarian colleagues. We surveyed over 2,700 Hungarian adults aged 18 to 64 years and assessed exercise addiction using the EAI. Results showed that the proportion of the people at risk for exercise addiction was 0.5 percent.

There are numerous theories that deal with both the causes of exercise addiction and the process and mechanisms of its development and maintenance. A significant number of psychological theories are based on learning theory or the cognitive psychology approach. According to the theory of functioning, both positive reinforcers (e.g., a feeling of euphoria following exercise or muscle growth from exercise) and negative reinforcers (e.g. an end to unpleasant feelings through exercise or avoidance of the presumed negative effect of missed exercise) may lie behind the development and maintenance of exercise addiction which, according to the fundamental principles of learning theory, may contribute to the establishment of compulsive and addictive exercise that may be viewed as maladaptive.

One of my research colleagues, Dr. Attila Szabo stresses the role of cognitive appraisal mechanisms in the development of the vicious cycle that leads to excessive exercise. The process starts when the habitual exerciser uses exercise as a means of coping with stress, and the affected individual learns to depend on exercise at times of stress. The addicted exerciser is then trapped in a vicious cycle of needing increased amounts of exercise to deal with the consistently increasing life stress, part of which is caused by exercise itself.

Perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive functioning, and heightened anxiety have also been claimed to be determining factors in exercise addiction.-Mark Griffiths

It also appears that the issue of self-assessment represents a further significant factor among the psychological factors in the sense that during exercise, the physical strength experienced through exercise in a person dissatisfied with his or her body contributes to the formation of a more positive self-image and self-assessment. It has also been shown that exercise activities (such as weightlifting) have a positive effect on body image and self-esteem both in men and in women. Perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive functioning, and heightened anxiety have also been claimed to be determining factors in exercise addiction.

The public promotion of healthy exercise patterns may reduce the incidence of exercise addiction. It is important in public health programs and campaigns to (i) stress the healthy nature of regular exercise and (ii) communicate the message that exercise when taken to excess can be potentially harmful. It is important to raise awareness of potential harm within the population of regular exercisers. Some psychologists claim that individuals with exercise addiction have a poor understanding of the negative health consequences of excessive exercising, of the mechanism of exercise adaptation, and the need for rest between exercise sessions. The use of education may be an effective step in the prevention and treatment of exercise addiction.

As with other addictive disorders, the environment of regular exercisers also plays a significant role in recognizing this condition early. In more severe cases psychotherapeutic interventions may be needed. When treating exercise addiction, abstinence from exercise may not be a required and/or realistic goal, because exercise has many benefits for health and no one would advocate doing no exercise. Therefore, the typical treatment goal would more likely be to return to moderate and controlled exercise. In some cases, a different form of exercise may be recommended.

When treating exercise addiction, abstinence from exercise may not be a required and/or realistic goal, because exercise has many benefits for health and no one would advocate doing no exercise.-Mark Griffiths

8 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction

Joanna is a 25-year-old student, well-educated female, from a stable family background, who realized that she had a problem surrounding exercise, and more specifically the martial art Jiu-Jitsu. Here, Joanna’s behavior is described in terms of the eight main components of addiction:

  • Salience: Jiu-Jitsu is the most important activity in Joanna’s life. Even when not actually engaged in the activity, she is thinking about the next training session or competition. She estimates that she spends approximately six hours a day (and sometimes much more) involved in training (e.g., weight training, jogging, general exercise, etc.).
  • Tolerance: Joanna started Jiu-Jitsu at an evening class once a week during her teenage years and built up slowly over a period of about five years. She now exercises every single day, and the duration of the sessions has become longer and longer (suggesting tolerance).
  • Withdrawal: Joanna claims she becomes highly agitated and irritable if she is unable to exercise. She claims she also gets headaches and feels nauseous if she goes for more than a day without training or has to miss a scheduled session.
  • Mood modification: Joanna experiences mood changes in a number of ways. She feels high and ‘buzzed up’ if she has done well in a Jiu-Jitsu competition (especially if she wins). She also feels high if she has trained hard and for a long time.
  • Conflict: Joanna’s relationship with her long-term partner ended as a result of her exercise. She claimed she never spent much time with him and was not even bothered about their break-up. Her university work suffered because of the lack of time and concentration.
  • Loss of control: Joanna claims she cannot stop herself engaging in exercise when she “gets the urge.” Once she has started, she has to do a minimum of a few hours of exercise.
  • Relapse: Joanna has continually tried to stop and/or cut down but claims she cannot. She becomes anxious if she is unable to engage in exercise and then has to go out and train to make herself feel better. She is aware that exercise has taken over her life but feels powerless to stop it.
  • Negative consequences: Joanna spends money beyond her means to maintain her exercising habit (e.g., on entrance fees for weight training, swimming, Jiu-Jitsu tournaments across the country, etc.). She has resorted to socially unacceptable means (e.g., stealing) in order to get money to fund herself.

In short, exercise is the most important thing in Joanna’s life, and the number of hours engaged in physical activity per week has increased substantially over a five-year period. She displays withdrawal symptoms when she does not exercise, and experiences euphoric experiences related to various aspects of her exercising (e.g., training hard, winning competitions, etc.). She experiences conflict over exercise in many areas of her life and acknowledges she has a problem. Furthermore, she has lost friends, her relationship has broken down, her academic work has suffered, and she has considerable debt.

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