Exercise and Workout Addiction

George Carlin once said, “Regarding the fitness craze: America has lost its soul; now it’s trying to save its body.” He might have been skirting quite close to the truth in this comedic routine.

In fact, his words might apply almost directly to people who are struggling with an exercise addiction. These people may have developed their exercise routines with the intention of getting fit and repairing damage done by poor lifestyle choices in the past. Unfortunately, these same people can seem to “lose their souls” to the activity, and they can become compelled to exercise, no matter the consequence.

By understanding what these addictions are, and what can be done about them, families can learn to step in and provide help before the addiction has a chance to do an extreme amount of damage.

Understanding the Cycle

Addictions to substances like cocaine and heroin begin with chemical changes in the brain. The drugs change the chemistry in the cells of the brain, causing the person to crave drugs to the exclusion of almost everything else. While much is known about how these chemical changes come into play in addictions to drugs, researchers are just now beginning to understand how similar chemical changes could play a role in exercise addictions.

According to an article published in The Economist, researchers have discovered that humans who run on a treadmill experience a rise in a brain chemical that’s quite similar to the chemical found in drugs like marijuana.

This is a result that’s been replicated in other studies, and some separate studies have also demonstrated that exercising can cause a spike in brain chemicals that cause euphoria and extreme happiness. These chemicals can keep people exercising, when they might otherwise tire of the activity, but the brain can also get hooked on these chemicals. The brain can demand these chemicals, and when they are not there, the brain may respond with symptoms of withdrawal. When this happens, the addiction is effectively locked in place, as chemical changes tend to drive the behavior at a subconscious level, outside of the person’s control. The behavior becomes compulsive.

These are not changes that happen overnight, and they may not happen to all people who exercise.

In a review of research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, authors suggest that about 3 percent of the general population could have an exercise addiction, but those who engage in elite sports such as marathon running could experience much higher rates of exercise addictions.

As these studies suggest, a casual exerciser might not be at an incredibly high risk of developing an addiction, although the risk is certainly present to some degree.

A Formal Diagnosis

People who are truly addicted to exercise tend to have these symptoms:

  • A tolerance for the good feelings exercise can cause. These people need to kick up their workouts on a repeated basis in order to feel euphoria from exercise.
  • Feelings of anxiety or irritability when not exercising. This is a common symptom of withdrawal, and it indicates that people have a chemical dependence on the changes exercise can bring about in brain chemistry.
  • An inability to control the amount or intensity of exercise endured each day.
  • An exclusive focus on exercise. These people spend a significant amount of time on exercise, and they reduce the amount of time they spend on other activities in order to allow them to spend more time in exercise activities.

It’s important to note that only a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist can deliver a formal diagnosis of exercise addiction. Families and friends may harbor deep suspicions that something is amiss, but they should resist throwing a label on the person, especially if they have no formal medical background. It’s best to let the experts handle this important task.

What It Might Look Like

While family members might not be able to formally diagnose an exercise addiction, there are some signs of impending trouble that might merit an intervention on the subject. An article in Fitness Management suggests that people who have exercise addiction issues tend to:

  • Work out alone, and seem isolated while at the gym or on a run
  • Follow the same exercise pattern, without variety, each day
  • Exercise for more than two hours each day
  • Exercise even when they are injured or don’t feel well
  • Skip classes, stay home from work or avoid social obligations in order to work out instead

People who are addicted to exercise might also become overly interested in counting the amount of calories they expend as they work out. Many exercise machines contain calorie counters, as do many watches worn by runners, and people with impending exercise issues may watch the numbers tick by and refuse to stop working out until they can prove that they’ve burned off a specific amount of calories. These people might also discuss those numbers repeatedly with their friends and family members.

The Link to Other Illnesses

Exercise addictions have been linked to a variety of other health issues, most notably, mental health problems that revolve around weight and body image.

A study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry found that 45.5 percent of those studied who had eating disorders also had exercise compulsion issues.

For these people, controlling weight is key and they will use any method to achieve that goal. Compulsive exercise seems to fit the bill quite well for these people. Combining restricted calories with increased exercise can be deadly, as the person might be pushing the body to extremes it was never designed to handle. People who seem to be losing extreme amounts of weight while continuing to exercise for long hours each day desperately need help in order to avoid a catastrophic health issue.

Some people who develop anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also develop exercise disorders.

In fact, there are some aspects of exercise addictions that seem to fit the diagnostic criteria of OCD. For example, people with OCD often engage in extremely rigid thought patterns, insisting that actions must be performed in the same way each day for the same amount of time or something terrible will happen. Those people who have exercise addictions may have exactly the same beliefs.

Holding an Intervention

People who exercise compulsively often benefit from a formal intervention with the people they love. This is particularly true if the addiction is only beginning to develop and hasn’t yet become a long-standing problem.

People going through an emotionally traumatic time may head to the gym in order to gain some feeling of power in their lives.

If these people seem to begin to develop some symptoms of an addiction, their family members can point out the behavior and gently recommend that the person visit a counselor for help, or at least think about how the behavior is damaging and what might be done to bring the behavior back to a more normal and reasonable level.

If a short conversation isn’t effective, more drastic steps are in order. In an intervention for exercise addiction, family members can express their concern about the behavior, and they can use concrete examples of why they believe the addiction is beginning to take hold and take over the person’s life. It can be a difficult conversation to have, especially if the person becomes upset or angry in the process, but opening the door to communication might allow the person to stop the behavior and begin the healing process. For some people, this means working to curb the behavior before it moves forward to addiction. For others, this means enrolling in a formal program of therapy to help eliminate the issue and help the person move forward without the addiction.

Only a licensed professional can determine which route is best for the person, but the family can rest easily knowing that they have done their part to ensure that the person is receiving the needed help.

If you have any questions about staging an intervention for someone you love, contact us today. We are here 24/7 to help.