Exercise Addiction: Too Much of a Good Thing

Regular physical activity is a healthy habit that reduces stress, elevates mood, improves strength, eases mild aches and pains and increases the chances of enjoying a longer, healthier life. However, too much exercise can be unhealthy, especially when physical activity interferes with the activities of everyday life.

The Partnership for Drug Free America estimates that exercise addiction affects about one percent of the population; however, the disorder is on the rise.

People with exercise addiction tend to be educated, highly motivated and perfectionistic. Like alcohol and drug addictions, exercise can be a way to deal with underlying issues such as anxiety or depression. Many times, people who over-exercise are struggling with lack of confidence or low self-esteem.

Exercise addiction is sometimes associated with eating disorders such as anorexia or other body dysmorphic disorders in which people are obsessed with appearance or body image to the point of extreme stress, anxiety or depression. Like drug and alcohol addictions, tolerance and cravings may develop when people feel the need to intensify the level of exercise to attain the desired result, be it heightened energy or improvements in strength or appearance. Exercise addicts may also experience feelings akin to withdrawal, including extreme frustration, irritability, depression, anxiety, mood swings and anger.

Many physical activity enthusiasts may over-exercise from time to time, especially when training for an event such as a game or marathon. However, most people are able to maintain proper perspective and include exercise as part of a healthy, balanced life. A person who is addicted is unable to adjust their schedule to allow for other important activities.

A person with an exercise addiction may:

  • Limit meals, count calories excessively or eat the same meal every day.
  • Dedicate exorbitant amounts of time to a strict exercise regimen.
  • Cease normal social and families activities to make time for exercise.
  • Give up normally enjoyable activities in favor of exercise.
  • Continue to exercise, even in the presence of injury, illness or exhaustion.
  • Feel depressed, guilty or angry when an exercise session is missed.
  • Often exercise longer or more often than originally planned.

Risks of Exercise Addiction

People who are addicted to exercise are at risk of a number of negative consequences, such as broken friendships, financial problems and loss of employment.

Too much exercise is hard on the body, and exercise addicts are more susceptible to joint, tendon and muscle injury, fractures and broken bones, often caused by low bone density. In severe cases, exercise addiction may lead to organ damage and cardiovascular problems, including heart attack.

The body needs rest. Without enough rest, exercise addiction and overzealous physical activity tends to cause chronic stress, which challenges the body’s immune system and makes the person more susceptible to illness.

Treating Exercise Addiction

Because exercise is considered a healthy, socially acceptable activity, people who are addicted to exercise are often hesitant to seek treatment. However, addiction treatment can help people put things back in perspective and return exercise to its proper place as a healthy part of a well-balanced life that includes time for fun, family, socializing, work and rest.

Individual counseling sessions can help people examine faulty thoughts and assumptions and replace them with more positive thoughts. Counseling will also help people cope with stress and address any underlying issues that are common with addiction, including depression, anxiety and trauma.

Some people may benefit from a personal trainer who understands the complications of exercise addiction. Nutritional training is usually an important aspect of treatment.

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