Is Exercise Addiction a Legitimate Problem?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity doubles the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure along with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still estimate that fewer than half of all American adults fail to engage in the minimum recommended amount of aerobic physical activity (150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week). And only 20 percent manage to squeeze in strength training on at least two days per week.

Encouraging People to Exercise Less?

Only in rare cases do we hear medical professionals or fitness professionals encouraging people to exercise less. Given the need to increase most Americans’ activity levels, it’s understandable that many do not consider exercise addiction a legitimate issue.

Given the need to increase most Americans’ activity levels, it’s understandable that many do not consider exercise addiction a legitimate issue.-Katherine SchreiberBut prevalence and frequency do not alone equal legitimacy – nor does the pressing nature of one widespread issue invalidate the suffering experienced by those who struggle with one that’s less common. Approximately 3% of active individuals in developed countries are thought to depend upon exercise as others would an addictive substance, leading them towards physical and emotional distress as well as interpersonal and professional dysfunction.

Exercise addiction is not currently listed as its own syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. But it is grouped under the umbrella category of behavioral addictions, which have been gaining more attention, thanks to decades of research into their origins, symptoms, and consequences. Because exercise addiction has received far less attention than other disorders, more studies must be conducted before it warrants its own diagnostic code.

That being said, several assessment tools have been designed to measure the severity and impact of an individual’s overzealous relationship with exercise.

Curious readers can investigate Heather Hausenblas and Danielle Symons-Downs’ Exercise Dependence Inventory; Mark Griffith, Atila Szabo, and Annabel Terry’s Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) or Lorin Tarania, Stephen Touyz, and Caroline Meyer’s Compulsive Exercise Test (CET).

The Consequences

Whatever you wish to call it (addiction, dependence, or compulsive activity) the consequences of too much time spent in motion are vast. At the less severe end of the spectrum, over-exercise can lead to herniated discs, muscle strains and tears, stress fractures and broken bones. In more extreme cases, pushing your body to its limits without adequate rest (or nutrition) can result in heat stroke, kidney failure, interference with thyroid function, and a loss of menstrual cycle for women.

Continual overexertion often results in a syndrome called overtraining, characterized by an elevated resting heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature abnormalities, dehydration, chest pain, gastrointestinal issues, difficulty breathing, and changes in appetite. Chronic overtraining can interfere with the body’s immune response and induce anemia. It can also cause sleep disturbances and a reduction in appetite.

Studies examining the hearts of lifelong endurance athletes have found increased incidences of heart scarring and risk of arrhythmia among runners and triathletes. Endurance athletes have also been found to have more arterial plaque than moderate exercisers.

Add to this the anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and depression a person who can’t curtail their exercise habits experiences – as well as their disengagement from meaningful social encounters and hobbies plus impairments in their ability to fulfill professional and familial obligations – and it’s clear that too much time spent moving is no minor issue.

Taking the Addiction Seriously

Exercise addiction may not have made its way into the DSM-5, nor might it be a chief concern for the majority of Americans, but its consequences are severe and its occurrence is verified.

Exercise addiction may not have made its way into the DSM-5, nor might it be a chief concern for the majority of Americans, but its consequences are severe and its occurrence is verified.-Katherine SchreiberSure, only 3% of active folks may be addicted to exercise addiction but around 25% of recreational runners and 52% of tri-athletes have been found to meet the criteria. (Up to 48% of people with eating disorders also fit the bill for exercise addiction).

Only by taking this issue seriously can treatments for the problem be further developed. Without the acknowledgment that exercise addiction is a legitimate issue, the lay public, fitness world, and even the medical community may inadvertently reinforce patterns of unhealthy behavior and miss opportunities to flag compulsive patterns of activity before they wreak too much havoc on a person’s life.

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