The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

‘I Was an Exercise Addict’ — When Working Out Becomes a Problem

The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction


Getting regular sweat sessions in, as you know, is a sure-fire way to dial up your energy, ignite your confidence and generally up the quality of your life.

But according to one study, for around 3% of gym-going people, working out develops into a compulsion that has a negative impact on their lives. (In marathon runners, that stat stands at 50%, according to a 1997 piece of research.)

Here, Fiona Thomas, an author and writer from Birmingham, shares her tale of dealing with the issue.

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For me, exercise used to be something that other people did. Growing up, the most physical activity I engaged in was walking to school. As a teenager, then a young adult, I was pretty consistently a size 16, and a desire to look my slimmer friends set me up for years of sporadic low-calorie diets in an attempt to lose weight.

It was a period of mental ill health at the age of 26 that led me to fall in love with exercise.

My job as a catering manager was incredibly stressful, and my perfectionist personality drove me to take on too much responsibility and work myself to the bone.

How my exercise addiction began

I was signed off sick with depression and tried to piece my mind back together with prescribed antidepressants and therapy. My doctor recommended exercise, too.

With whole days stretched out in front of me, I decided to focus on losing weight. If I could look healthy, I reasoned, perhaps it would ease my mental anguish. In the beginning, working out gave me a reason to get bed in the morning.

Classes allowed me human contact by being in a room with people, without any requirement for draining social niceties. But it wasn’t long before I felt myself getting obsessed. I’d chase the adrenaline buzz by pushing myself to do more and more – by lifting heavier or going for longer.

'Within weeks, I was exercising for up to three hours a day. I’d work out on the gym floor before and after a class or do two or three classes in a row.'

Sometimes I’d run to and from the gym as well. Friends and family viewed my ‘gym bunny’ persona as a positive thing for my mental health; the gym instructors loved my commitment; and as I reduced my body fat and began to show off my taut abs, the compliments rolled in. It all added up to confirmation that I was doing the right thing.

But meanwhile, both my physical and mental health were suffering.

Back-to-back HIIT sessions and no rest days left me with sharp shooting pains in my legs. But I felt disgusted with myself if my muscles weren’t burning.

When my exercising got control

A family birthday dinner clashing with my favourite weightlifting class would leave me distressed, and I’d restrict my calories or train harder the next day to compensate for the exercise I’d missed. I began to withdraw socially, too.

I started using my boyfriend Joseph as a social barrier, avoiding seeing friends if he wasn’t with me to steer the conversation. I felt no one could understand what I was going through, and it only made me retreat further.

My identity had been so intrinsically linked with my career that, when I was signed off, my self-esteem was in tatters. Fitness became something I could align myself with; something I could use to prove that I was worth something, and something I could control. But in an effort to help myself, I’d created another issue entirely.

My need for control peaked in the run-up to my wedding in 2015. Upping my workouts with the goal of looking good on the day left me physically and emotionally exhausted.

I vividly remember looking around the dance floor on my wedding day and having this moment of clarity. Friends and family – people of all shapes and sizes – were having an amazing time. I realised that I’d sacrificed spending time with all of them, at some point, to hammer my body in the gym.

I felt I was missing out on my own life. Changing your priorities, when exercise has always come first, is a really hard thing to do. Railing against my negative inner voice – the one telling me I’m lazy and not training hard enough – remains a struggle.

How I got a handle on my exercise addiction

But I’m becoming more self-aware; more able to recognise that voice, and know that it’s not the truth. I’m also trying to work on self-compassion, and respect the fact that my body isn’t indestructible.

I’ve also learnt the importance of having a back-up coping mechanism. Exercise can be an incredibly powerful thing, but relying on one thing – whatever it is – can leave you vulnerable if that thing is taken away from you.

I naturally stopped working out so much when I started writing; and my blog – and later my book – became another way of processing my feelings.

Today, I’m a size 16. I train simply because I know it’s good for my physical and mental health. I work from home, so every day I make sure I get outside for a walk, and three or four times a week I’ll do some yoga, go running or do a gym class.

I’ve accepted that I can’t have my ideal body shape and look after my mental health. So, while I’m in a place where I need to make a trade-off, I’m prioritising the latter.

So, what exactly is exercise addiction? The expert view

'Exercise addiction isn’t yet formally recognised as a mental health disorder. It describes a pattern of behaviour whereby the person affected feels the need to compulsively exercise, often at the expense of their physical and mental health,' explains consultant, psychiatrist and author, Dr Sarah Vohra.

'Typically, the person affected will perform an excessive amount of exercise, prioritising this over relationships and working life, and might experience withdrawal effects when they can’t exercise, low mood or anxiety.'

How to help someone who might have an addiction to exercise

It's always difficult to try and help someone who might not feel as though they need it. Try to never accuse or diagnose someone yourself, but reach out and let them know you are there if they ever need to talk.

Therapy is often helpful when treating any compulsive addictions, including an addiction to exercise.

Cognitive behavioural therapies, for example, can help give someone the tools they might need to change their negative thoughts and actions into something more positive.

As told to Lauren Clark for Women's Health UK, September 2019

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When exercise shifts from a healthy habit to an unhealthy addiction

The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

  • Experts reveal the prevalence, signs and risks of exercise addiction
  • «It isn't about vanity at all,» one exercise addict says

(CNN)Even if Abby Heugel wanted to stop, she couldn't.

She had to sweat. She had to feel her heart race and her muscles stretch, contract and burn. She had to be in control. She had to exercise.

Heugel, 35, has a history of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and exercise addiction, which has left her underweight for a decade, she said. Although she sees a therapist, she said she struggles with her addiction every day.

«I physically feel I will jump my skin if I don't move every couple of hours. Mentally, it's torture,» said Heugel, a writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Heugel has often shared stories about her depression and OCD in her work, in a snarky, tongue-in-cheek way, with dry humor — but she says she rarely opened up about her exercise addiction.

Many people don't seem to understand how exercising can evolve from a healthy habit to a potentially harmful addiction, she said, and she wants to change that.

«I would define it as part of my anxiety and OCD. I don't over-exercise because I think I'm fat and need to lose weight. In fact, it's the complete opposite. … If I could have 40 pounds put on my frame tomorrow, I would do it in a heartbeat, which is why so many people are confused,» Heugel said.

Heugel said that she also hasn't been photographed in years because she's not comfortable with how she looks right now.

«Why not eat more? I do eat more than a normal person, but it's all very controlled and obsessive as well and not enough to sustain my overactivity. Why not just rest? Because alcohol or drugs, it's an addiction,» she said. «It's what I do when I'm anxious; it's part of my routines. It's a compulsion.»

Exercise addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative guide to defining, classifying and diagnosing mental health disorders. The only behavior-associated addiction in the DSM is gambling.

However, a paper that published last month in the British Medical Journal encourages health-care professionals to recognize and understand the risks of exercise addiction.

Symptoms of exercise addiction appear in about 0.3% to 0.5% of the general population worldwide, said Heather Hausenblas, a professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida and lead author of the paper.

«It's a small percentage, but … if you're taking a look at the whole country, it's hundreds of thousands of individuals who have this,» Hausenblas said.

«We tend to — rightfully so — think of exercise as a really positive thing we need to be doing, and most of us don't exercise enough and aren't getting a hold of the health-related benefits of exercise,» she said. «But with any behavior, we can take it to an extreme.»

When exercise is taken to an extreme, Hausenblas said, it can manifest as a secondary addiction, in which it's secondary to an eating disorder and an individual is exercising only to control or maintain their weight. Or exercise addiction may manifest as a primary addiction, in which there is no underlying pathology.

Although men and women are equally at risk for exercise addiction, it more often appears as a primary addiction in men and a secondary addiction in women, according to the paper.

«The research has been slow, but it is growing, clearly showing that there are groups of individuals who engage in too much physical activity to the point where we would classify it as an addiction,» Hausenblas said.

'Most don't know what goes on behind the scenes'

For Heugel, the symptoms of primary exercise addiction, as well as OCD and depression, became more apparent in her early 20s.

In 2015, she needed two blood transfusions because she was anemic from over-exercising, she said. Her doctor told her that she had to find a therapist.

Now, Heugel is no longer anemic and frequently visits her therapist, Brendan Kelly, who helps her «sort things out.»

«It's a daily or hourly struggle, and combined with depression, it's really tough,» Heugel said. «I'm a highly functional individual on paper. I have a great job, a house; people think I'm funny … but most don't know what goes on behind the scenes.»

Although exercise developed into a compulsive disorder for Heugel, Kelly said it's important to remember that exercise can have a positive impact on both mental and physical health for many other patients.

A regular exercise routine can even be incorporated into ongoing treatment for certain mental health conditions, said Kelly, co-founder of The Well Being, an outpatient therapy service in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But for those with exercise addiction, the goal of therapy is to help patients recognize their addictive behavior and reduce extreme exercise routines, according to the new paper.

There is scant research available on the treatment of exercise addiction, but the paper notes that cognitive behavioral therapy is recommended, as with other behavioral addictions.

«Patients may find it beneficial to work with fitness professionals and psychotherapists to design an appropriate training regimen and to re-learn how to use internal sensations, such as pain and fatigue, to differentiate between appropriate versus excessive training and healthy versus unhealthy motivators, such as comparison with others,» according to the paper.

Yet when exercise shifts from a seemingly healthy habit to an addiction, the signs and symptoms are often overlooked — and the shift happens slowly, said Paula Quatromoni, an associate professor and chairwoman of the department of health sciences at Boston University. She is not related to Heugel's case.

» an eating disorder, an exercise disorder is a very slippery slope. It usually starts with good intentions: to get fit, to lose a few pounds, to look good for the wedding, to lose the weight after having a baby, to train for a first triathlon,» Quatromoni said.

«When the behavior becomes compulsive, it takes over and is never satisfied. It is a driven need to exercise. The need to exercise, to exercise hard and to exercise several times a day becomes more important than almost anything else.

More important than being with friends. More important than going to work. More important than getting sleep. More important than eating,» she said, adding that the addiction often accompanies other mental health illnesses, anxiety or OCD.

'I hate how I look and how I am'

The signs and symptoms of exercise addiction include exercising despite illness or injury and having withdrawal symptoms when you can't exercise, such as anxiety, said Hausenblas, author of the new paper.

«It's not the amount of exercise. You can have an elite athlete, and if they have an overuse injury, they're going to take the time off to let their body heal, whereas someone who is exercise-addicted will not be able to or it's going to be extremely difficult for them to be able to do that,» Hausenblas said.

«There's an individual that I interviewed that had run a marathon and kept running, because he felt he still needed to exercise more,» she said.

«Another individual ended up buying gym memberships, and he said it was getting very expensive for him. He bought three gym memberships because he did not want one gym to realize how much he was exercising.

So in the morning, he would go to one gym, in the afternoon another and then in the evening a different one.»

The health risks of exercise addiction range from overuse injuries, dehydration and anemia to developing a compromised immune system and even death, especially when paired with an eating disorder, said Boston University's Quatromoni.

«The warning signs are not always visible, certainly not to a health professional who doesn't see the social consequences of the disorder lack of interpersonal relationships, loneliness, isolation,» she said. «As a society and as professionals, we are not used to looking at exercise as 'too much of a good thing' in a way that can negatively affect your health.»

Heugel agrees.

«What I wish people understood was that it isn't about vanity at all.

I hate how I look and how I am, but it's truly a disease, a combination of several things that culminate in my behavior, and it's a real thing, not an excuse or something we just make up,» she said.

«It's complicated, and I don't expect anyone who doesn't suffer from it to understand, only to be compassionate of the struggle.»

«,»author»:»Jacqueline Howard, CNN»,»date_published»:»2017-05-09T08:06:19.000Z»,»lead_image_url»:»»,»dek»:null,»next_page_url»:null,»url»:»»,»domain»:»»,»excerpt»:»One woman opens up about her OCD, depression and unhealthy exercise addiction, a compulsive disorder that is estimated to affect 0.3% of the general population.»,»word_count»:1391,»direction»:»ltr»,»total_pages»:1,»rendered_pages»:1}


Exercise Addiction Causes & Effects | Articles & Resources

The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

An individual with exercise addiction demonstrates an unhealthy preoccupation with fitness goals and working out.

It can be difficult to believe someone who is obsessed with fitness could be addicted, but individuals with exercise addiction share behavioral and psychological traits with those who are addicted to substances such as alcohol.

These include continuing the destructive behavior despite severe consequences, hiding or lying about exercise, and feeling unable to control how much or when exercise occurs.

Many individuals who exercise obsessively report feeling high and powerful. This happens because exercise releases endorphins and dopamine that lead to feeling happy and relaxed — feelings that dissipate when exercise stops. Unless the individual trains again, the same intensity of those feelings will not return.

Although in most cases this is a desirable response to working out, individuals with exercise addiction continue to train even when injuries, relationship problems and dangerous weather dictate slowing down is the appropriate response.

Exercise addiction can also occur alongside eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

The effects of exercise addiction can be deadly, especially if exercise addiction occurs alongside an eating disorder.

A nutrient-poor diet, too-rapid weight loss and deteriorating mental health can lead to life-threatening problems such as heart failure, organ failure or suicide.

Although exercise addiction may begin with innocent intentions, it can result in deadly effects — but help is available.

The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Substance Abuse

Exercise addiction symptoms resemble the side effects felt by an individual with a substance abuse problem. Feeling high after working out is an extremely common side effect, and some scientists theorize the euphoria caused by exercise is similar to the rush felt by opiate addicts.

Suffering from depression or anxiety if too much time passes without a workout is also extremely common. An exercise addict might train for far longer than the current 30-minute daily recommendation — instead, intense workouts lasting 2 or 3 hours might be the norm.

This significant time commitment may lead to problems in other areas of the individual’s life.

If someone you care about is addicted to exercise, you have already noticed a failure to meet certain commitments or obligations. In the exercise addict’s life, working out is the most important thing.

Un healthy individuals, who work exercise into their daily routine, an individual with exercise addiction plans working out first and adapts everything else to meet that schedule — including work, spending time with family and friends, and other personal obligations.

Workout intensity might mean your loved one also has to spend a lot of time preparing for and recovering from exercise, which leaves little time for other activities. Attempts to cut back don’t work, because the desire to exercise is too strong.

Who Is at Risk for Exercise Addiction?

Anyone can develop an addiction to exercise, but certain groups may be more ly to develop a problem. An individual with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa may be ly to obsessively exercise to support caloric restriction goals.

Also, those who have extreme weight loss goals — particularly those who suffer from obesity — are at risk. Individuals who were once teased for weight or appearance are at risk, as are those who were once addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Using exercise as a “healthy” substitute for using sometimes backfires.

Orthorexia is also common in individuals with exercise addiction. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with nutrition and exercise, and it frequently results in injuries, exhaustion, anxiety, isolation, depression and changes in menstruation.

An individual with orthorexia grows obsessed with healthy eating habits and may refuse to eat entire food groups, or foods that contain additives.

These individuals go to extremes to assure certain foods are never consumed, and they may feel superior to those who opt for less-rigid dietary choices.

“Type A” or perfectionistic individuals are also at risk of developing an exercise addiction.

Exercise Addiction Symptoms and Signs

At first, an individual with exercise addiction might appear to be the picture of health.

Lean limbs and strong muscles, regular participation in endurance races and other popular fitness events, and an unrelenting commitment to working out are fitness goals many healthy individuals aspire to.

Individuals with exercise addiction take their goals too far, however — and a person with a substance abuse problem, continue to engage in unhealthy activities even when the signs to stop are clear.

An individual with exercise addiction might:

  • Get hooked on the number of compliments received as well as the endorphin rush felt while working out. The only way for the exercise addict to feel good is to work out, and regaining that rush must happen no matter what.
  • Participate in multiple fitness classes or workouts per day. The intoxicating effects of working out encourage the individual to exercise for hours a day.
  • Work out even after sustaining an injury. Overtraining is a serious problem for all athletes, but especially for those with exercise addiction. When a healthy person who exercises regularly injures a muscle or a bone, he will stop working out until he has healed. When an individual with exercise addiction sustains an injury, he continues to exercise anyway — thus worsening the problem.
  • Exercise even when working out takes too much time away from important obligations. When exercise interferes with personal and professional obligations — and despite warnings to cut back, continues anyway — exercise addiction could be a problem.
  • Feel exhausted instead of strong after working out, and depressed or anxious when working out isn’t possible. Individuals who work out obsessively frequently feel exhaustion because their muscles have not been allowed to recover. Skipping a workout for a day or two is normal, and it can even help the body, because muscles gain strength while at rest. When irritability and depressive symptoms occur after a short time that could be a sign of exercise addiction.
  • Be obsessed with perceived perfection. An individual who uses exercise to cope with an obsession with appearance and perfection needs treatment. Although exercise is a proven mood booster, those who use it to battle low self-esteem are at risk of becoming dependent.
  • Ignore friends and favorite activities to focus on working out. Individuals with exercise addiction dis skipping working out and prefer to train alone. They express frustration or guilt when their routines are altered or skipped. They may also express dissatisfaction with their workouts, even if their workouts are already intense.
  • Suffer obvious physical problems. Exercise addicts are at high risk of overtraining, which reduces the ability to perform. In addition to fatigue, an individual with exercise addiction will be sore and stiff nearly constantly. An inability to concentrate — especially if combined with an eating disorder — is also common. Muscle wasting and adrenal exhaustion are serious consequences of exercise addiction.

If you are concerned you or someone you love is addicted to exercise, you may be able to further identify the problem by keeping a journal. Write it down every time exercise occurs, including the type and length of exercise.

If you observe possible eating disorder symptoms, record that also.

These may include skipped meals, dietary supplements, obsessive recording of caloric intake, spending a lot of time in the bathroom, oral health problems and extreme weight loss.

The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders

There is a strong relationship between exercise addiction and eating disorders. An individual who has an eating disorder demonstrates unhealthy attitudes about food and weight, has unrealistic standards and is extremely self-critical. Food, weight and caloric intake consume other thoughts.

This unhealthy focus disrupts normal bodily functions and habits, and in serious cases can end in death. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders cause more fatalities than every other type of mental health condition.

An individual with an eating disorder may adopt an obsessive exercise routine to support extreme weight loss goals.

Although women are more ly than men to develop an eating disorder, men are less ly to get help. The number of men with eating disorders is also rising. Adolescents are extremely susceptible to eating disorders, but it may develop in men and women of all ages.

There are several types of eating disorders that may occur alongside exercise addiction. They include:

  • Anorexia nervosa. An individual with anorexia may starve himself by strictly limiting caloric intake because of a distorted body image. Vomiting, also called purging, may accompany eating. The anorectic may try to lose weight in a short period of time with diet pills, stimulants or fad diets. Individuals with anorexia often use intense exercise as a way to control weight and reduce the caloric effects of eating.
  • Bulimia. Bulimia is a disorder typified by consuming large amounts of food at one time. Individuals with bulimia often vomit or purge after eating to reduce caloric intake. In addition to purging, other methods of calorie restriction include the use of diuretics or water pills, fasting and excessive exercise. If vomiting is the method of choice, a trip to the dentist may alert a concerned parent that bulimia is possible. That’s because vomit wears away at tooth enamel and can cause gum disease.
  • Binge eating disorder. A diagnosis of binge eating disorder means uncontrolled eating not followed by purging. Strong feelings of shame accompany binge eating disorder, and a struggling person may alternate binges with fasting or fad dieting.
  • Orthorexia. An individual with this avoidant disorder refuses to eat certain foods, food groups or additives. For example, an individual with orthorexia might refuse to eat carbohydrates. This obsession with healthy eating is closely linked with exercise addiction. Because orthorexia leads to bone density loss and heart problems, a coexisting exercise addiction can cause serious injury at best and death at worst.

Common Causes of Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders

Exercise addiction and eating disorders are complex diseases that cause a variety of serious physical and psychological health problems. The roots of these disorders live far deeper than concerns over appearance.

The causes for each disorder remain unclear, but researchers agree a variety of factors contribute to exercise addiction and eating disorders. These factors include physical, psychological, social and cultural problems.

Each individual has their own reasons why exercise addiction and/or an eating disorder became a problem. Common causes of exercise addiction and eating disorders include:

  • Low self-esteem. Individuals with exercise addiction enjoy observing measurable progress in terms of size, strength or speed. These feelings are reinforced when others make positive comments on changes in appearance.
  • Body image disorder. What begins as a healthy desire to achieve clear fitness goals may lead to exercise addiction if symptoms of body image disorder exist. When an individual believes he is fat when weight is not a problem, he may suffer from a distorted self image.
  • A craving for endorphins. During intense exercise, the body releases endorphins. Endorphins cause euphoric feelings during exercise, excitement and sexual activity. This euphoric feeling is similar to what opiate drug users experience when high, according to Also substance abuse, getting that euphoric feeling back requires exercising longer and harder.
  • Depression and anxiety. Exercise is a proven mood booster and an individual with exercise addiction may work out obsessively to self-treat uncomfortable symptoms. When working out isn’t possible, feelings of anxiety, sadness and guilt become overwhelming.

The Physical and Psychological Effects of Exercise Addiction

The physical and psychological effects of exercise addiction can be profound. They may include:

  • Eating disorders.
  • Damage to joints and muscles that limit the capacity for movement.
  • Stress fractures and severe bone loss. Bone loss can be a serious problem, particularly for older women, but it can also increase the risk of injuries.
  • Scarring of the heart muscle. Scarring can cause abnormal function and heart failure. Endurance athletes are more ly to suffer heart muscle scarring.
  • Problems with menstruation.
  • Cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortion helps an individual addicted to exercise justify his workout routine. Habits may include superstitious thinking, discounting, black and white thinking, over-generalization, and associating extreme exercise habits with long-term happiness.

Treating Exercise Addiction

The answer to exercise addiction is more complex than cutting back on working out. To achieve a better balance while retaining a healthy commitment to fitness, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary.

Programs that address the physical damage caused by overtraining and the psychological impact of addiction are a good place to start. In these programs, the struggling individual will take time off from exercise to allow injuries to heal. He will also practice sound dietary habits.

Through psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, he will identify the root causes of the addiction, and learn to cope. He will also identify triggers that precede exercise, and figure out how to manage those frustrations and impulses with life-affirming practices.

If a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety exists, he or she will receive treatment for that as well. This treatment may include psychotherapy, a pharmacological remedy or both.


Exercise Addiction

The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

There is no question that regular exercise offers many benefits to a person’s physical and mental health.

Studies have shown that even moderate exercise can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and exercise goes a long way toward improving mood and self-esteem.

Though it is typically defined as a good and healthy habit, exercise can sometimes become an addiction and have a negative influence on physical and mental well-being.

Exercise Addiction Signs and Symptoms

There is no specific or universally accepted definition of exercise addiction.

The condition is not listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), though the characteristics and symptoms of behavioral addictions, under which exercises addiction ly falls, are described.

As with many other forms of addiction, exercise addiction can be distinguished from being merely devoted to fitness by two relevant criteria. Exercise addiction may be implicated when:

  1. Exercise no longer improves one’s quality of life, but on the contrary, causes problems in a person’s life in physical and psychological forms. Under these circumstances, an exercise habit is maladaptive.
  2. A person exercises excessively, perhaps several hours each day, without giving the body a chance to rest. In exercise addiction, these defining criteria are often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, which are present whenever a person, for any reason, cannot exercise. These withdrawal symptoms may include irritability, guilt, depression, and anxiety.

How Much Exercise Is Too Much?

Thirty minutes of physical activity per day has the power to prevent health conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Most studies recommend 60 to 90 minutes of exercise three to four times a week, but there is no single formula that should be applied universally as training programs and athletic demands will differ from person to person.

The following checklist can be helpful in differentiating a state of being addicted to exercise from being merely committed to it:

  • Missing important social events because of exercising.
  • Losing interest in other hobbies or activities you enjoy, so that there is more time for exercising.
  • Feeling happy only while exercising.
  • Preferring exercise over other pleasant activities such as going out, having sex, or eating a delicious meal.
  • Exercising even when exhausted, sick, or injured.
  • Spending any extra time exercising on a day-to-day basis.
  • Friends and/or family members expressing serious concern over a person’s exercise habits.

Individuals satisfying three or more of these symptoms may benefit from examining their exercise habits and speaking with a qualified therapist or mental health professional to develop a healthier approach to exercise. The first step to take in treating an addiction is to identify and acknowledge a problem.

Treatment for Exercise Addiction

A popular treatment for exercise addiction symptoms is residential treatment in an inpatient program. These treatment facilities separate people from the stress and routine of day-to-day life, allowing them to focus on wellness.

Residents are supported through individual or group counseling to address many of the emotional reasons behind an addiction and develop healthier behaviors and coping methods.

Some rehab centers offer outpatient treatment for those who cannot access inpatient care, and for those leaving the facility who may require additional support to avoid relapse.

Some people may benefit from simply meeting with a chosen therapist or a support group on a regular basis. A qualified therapist can help a person understand the underlying reasons for the addiction, which often yields better long-term results than trying to tackle an addiction by oneself.

Support groups allow people to interact with others experiencing similar conditions, offering a safe environment to foster the therapeutic process of battling addiction.

Regardless of the treatment modality, therapy can help a person address the urge for control over one’s life and how to exercise without organizing one’s life around it.

Case Example

  • Stress and the need for control: Amanda, 31, has been physically inactive for most of her life. When she was 28, she started doing Pilates. A few weeks into it, she began to feel better and loved the improvement to her physical appearance. A year into Pilates, Amanda went though a stressful period.

    She ended a long relationship, moved into another apartment, and lost her job. Feeling desperate and lonely, Amanda decided to add some extra gym time to her regular Pilates routine. Whenever she felt sad, she went to the gym and worked out hard. She began feeling that exercising was the only part of her life she had control over.

    In addition to Pilates, she started spending an hour afterward running on a treadmill. Sometimes, on especially stressful days, she went to the gym three times a day. She started to skip outings with her friends and lied to them by saying she was sick or busy with work.

    She nearly lost her new job because of her commitment to the gym, at which point she realized something had to change. Amanda searched for and admitted herself to a local rehabilitation clinic, where she underwent treatment with a therapist who helped her to let go of the urge to have complete control over her life.

    Amanda has since found other activities that make her feel content while maintaining a healthy workout schedule she developed with her primary care physician.


  1. Bush, C. (2014). How to Know if You're Exercising Too Much. Retrieved from
  2. Hansen, C.J., Stevens, L.C, and Coast, J.R. (2001). Exercise duration and mood state: how much is enough to feel better? Health Psychology, 20(4), 267-75. Retrieved from
  3. Stoliaroff, S. (n.d.). Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction. The American Running Association. Volume 18, Number 6, Running & Fit News. Retrieved from

Last Update:11-27-2019


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