Too Much of a Good Thing: Exercise Addiction

Exercise is a good thing, isn’t it? With regular physical activity, we are healthier, we live longer and we look better. Exercise and fitness activities can help us work through stress and cope with anxiety, depression, and even cravings associated with addiction and recovery.

So what’s the problem?

Like gambling, porn, sex, video games, shopping or other behavior addictions, obsessive exercise can trigger release of excessive amounts of dopamine, the body’s “feel good” hormone. No different than an addiction to drugs and alcohol, the brain is hostage and more and more of the substance (or behavior) is needed to just feel normal. Even the healthiest of activities can be harmful when taken to extremes.

Exercise addiction is difficult to spot because people who exercise a lot tend to look virtuous. Also, it’s important not to assume that all people who exercise regularly are addicted. Exercise always begins with the best of intentions and only becomes a problem when it involves compulsive behavior and loss of perspective.

If you think you may be addicted to exercise, consider the following warning signs:

  • Your dedication to exercise becomes all-important, even more than work, family, friends, or even eating, sleep or sex. Your personal relationships are suffering.
  • Missing a workout makes you feel guilty, angry, depressed, resentful, anxious or irritable. You may feel compelled to exercise twice as hard the next day to make up for skipping a workout.
  • You push through a workout, even when your body is telling you it needs to rest, or you are exhausted, sick or injured.
  • You exercise to escape your problems or to cope with stress, frustration or anger.
  • You only feel okay about yourself when you are exercising. Without exercise, you feel inadequate.
  • Your exercise sessions are becoming longer or more frequent. Working out is no longer fun.
  • The strain on your body is causing frequent injuries.

If you recognize any of the warning signs, take steps to get your life back to a healthy balance. Skip a day or two every week to let your body recover. Switch your exercise routine regularly. Be sure you’re eating enough to make up for the calories burned during your workouts. Stay hydrated. Listen to your body; exercising when you’re overly tired increases the risk of injury.

Be honest with yourself, but most importantly, be compassionate and not overly self-critical. Like all addictions, exercise addiction is complicated, and you may need professional assistance to restore equilibrium.

Treating Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is often associated with eating or body image disorders. Counseling can help you learn healthier, more constructive ways of coping with both disorders. You may need to stop exercising for awhile, or you may need to change your routine. Remember, the goal isn’t to give up exercise completely, but to find a healthy perspective.

A qualified fitness professional can often help an addicted person determine how much physical activity is healthy and establish boundaries and reasonable goals. Yoga and mindfulness meditation may be helpful.

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