Exercise addiction help and support

Outlining the signs and symptoms you may experience if you are over-exercising, and highlighting the support available.

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This page was reviewed by Stephanie Chick, senior addictions therapist in Priory Hospital North London, in July 2020.

What is exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction is a compulsive disorder, characterised by the overwhelming urge to exercise excessively. As physical activity is often encouraged in modern society as a means of improving overall health and wellbeing, it can be difficult to diagnose exercise addiction, particularly as people vary in what they find physically challenging.

If you have exercise addiction, the enjoyment and desire to exercise has ultimately given way to an uncontrollable urge to take part in physical activity. It can be experienced in conjunction with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, which involve an unhealthy relationship with food, exercise and body image to the extent that you can lose a dangerous amount of weight.

Signs and symptoms of exercise addiction

While exercise addiction can be difficult to categorise, diagnosing the compulsive disorder depends less on what type of sport or physical activity you're involved in, or how complex a fitness regime is, and more about how damaging excessive exercise is to other areas of your life.

If you believe that you or someone you care about may have exercise addiction, then some or all the following symptoms may appear:

  • Continuing to exercise despite physical injury or psychological issues
  • Spending less time doing activities outside of exercise
  • Thoughts are dominated by exercise, including planning and thinking about exercise
  • Deviating from your intended exercise routine and increasing intensity
  • Needing to exercise more and at a higher intensity to receive the same pleasurable ‘high’
  • Feelings of withdrawal such as irritability when you're unable to exercise for a period of time

Because you dedicate a significant amount of time to exercise each day, this can impact other areas of your life. You may have begun to prioritise physical activity over spending time with family and friends, and they could have started questioning why you feel the need to exercise so regularly, which could lead to conflict.

Even if people you care about want to join in on your exercise routines as way to spend time with you, you may view this as a disruption to carefully planned workouts, and you may prefer to exercise alone. This can have an adverse effect on your social life, and can make you feel increasingly isolated.

It's also likely that work or educational commitments will feel as though they're getting in the way of your ability to exercise. It can be tempting to miss university lectures, or take unpaid time off work to be able to exercise. This can have negative consequences in that it might take you longer to catch up on missed work, potentially harming your academic and career prospects.

When you're living with exercise addiction, emotional distress isn't uncommon, especially if you have a co-existing eating disorder or other mental health condition that causes a negative body image or low self-esteem.

You might feel anxious if you're unable to exercise as frequently as you would like. Even for someone who exercises regularly, going 1 to 2 days without exercising may represent part of a normal routine, although if you have a compulsive urge to exercise daily, it can take as little as 6 hours after exercise for you to feel symptoms of anxiety such as irritability.

If you have primary exercise addiction which doesn’t involve other mental health conditions, it can be common to experience feelings of depression when you're forced to stop or reduce your exercise routines, perhaps due to injury or other commitments. This is because exercise is often used as a way of coping with significant amounts of stress in your life, so without exercise as an option, it may be difficult to know how else to channel your feelings.

Causes of exercise addiction

The causes of other addictions, such as substance abuse problems, can help you understand why you may have developed an exercise addiction.

Because physical activity allows your body to create its own pleasurable ‘high’ in the form of brain chemicals, known as endorphins, this can become an addictive feeling that requires more frequent and higher intensity exercise in order to achieve the same effect.

This is the same process that underpins substance addiction. It's when you stop exercising and the pleasurable effects of exercise wear off, much like when you stop taking a particular drug, that feelings of withdrawal such irritability and restlessness mean you seek out exercise again as soon as possible in order to feel relief.

People at risk

While the chemical release in your brain can cause you to want to exercise excessively, it's not the only factor which may determine whether you develop an exercise addiction.

Many people can participate in moderate or even high levels of exercise without feeling the compulsive urge to exercise excessively. People who are believed to be most at risk of developing exercise addiction include those who feel pressure to stay in shape. This might include people who are living with an eating disorder, as well as those who embark on strict and extreme weight loss regimes.

Research also indicates that people with addictive personalities already, such as those who have an existing addiction to alcohol or drug abuse, are much more likely than the general population to develop a compulsive urge to exercise. This may be as a result of using exercise as a means of replacing the ‘void’ left after recovering from past addictions.

Diagnosing exercise addiction

Because exercise is viewed in such a positive light in society, it can be difficult to determine when you're exercising compulsively, or simply training at a level that's needed for a marathon or long-distance race you hope to compete in. For this reason, addiction experts and studies have concluded that exercise addiction should only be diagnosed when it has a significant impact on other aspects of your life, such as physical injury, or social and work problems that arise as a result of your unmanageable desire to exercise.

Types of exercise addiction

Because exercise addiction can exist on its own or co-exist with other mental health conditions, there are two types of exercise addiction which can be diagnosed. These are:

Primary exercise addiction - most common in men, this type of exercise addiction develops without any other psychological or behavioural addictions, so excessive exercise is the main problem requiring treatment and support.

The ‘happy’ chemicals in your brain that are released when you exercise are what leads to primary exercise addiction.

Secondary exercise addiction – this type of exercise addiction is diagnosed if an underlying mental health condition, often an eating disorder, is the main cause of your uncontrollable urges to exercise excessively.

Eating disorders such as anorexia involve self-starvation to lose weight and can involve over-exercising to speed up the process, while bulimia is characterised by a cycle of binge eating before ridding your body of food.

Treating the cause of exercise addiction will ultimately help towards recovery from both mental health conditions, as treating exercise addiction on its own would see the main issue still present.

Treatment for exercise addiction

If you're diagnosed with exercise addiction, it can initially be distressing, although there are treatment options available at Priory that can help reduce your over-reliance on exercise and channel the urge to exercise into more positive behaviours.

The most important first step towards recovering from any addiction is to acknowledge that you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and being open to learning new techniques and thought processes to control the amount of exercise you do.

Moving to different forms of exercise, revising current workout regimes, and avoiding too many trips to the gym are beneficial to someone who tends to over exert themselves, although exercise addiction often needs targeted sessions of behavioural therapy to transform overall attitudes to exercise.

If you have a dual diagnosis of an eating disorder and exercise addiction, your treatment programme will first have to address what's causing the urge to exercise. This is because an eating disorder is likely to have symptoms of misperception, such as the belief that engaging in an excessive amount of exercise will help towards losing weight.

While there are currently no prescription drugs that can help treat exercise addiction, and medication may only be prescribed if you're experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety as a result from exercise addiction, there are several behavioural techniques that can be used.

Therapy for primary exercise addiction

If you have primary exercise addiction, where the addiction exists on its own, then one-to-one therapy sessions with a specialist enables you to learn more effective coping techniques for dealing with the compulsive urge to exercise.

A form of talking therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an action-based and problem-solving therapy where you work towards a developing full understanding of why you have exercise addiction and the impact it's having on your life. It will also help you to change dysfunctional thought patterns that may be contributing to your condition.

Therapy for secondary exercise addiction

If you have an exercise addiction that co-exists with another mental health issue, which often includes eating disorders, then it's the body image issues associated with conditions such as anorexia and bulimia that can cause the exercise addiction to develop.

Because of this, therapy focuses on self-esteem and distorted body image issues. This can include individual, group therapy and nutritional counselling, which form part of a treatment programme that's tailored towards the underlying reasons for why you may have developed exercise addiction.

Medication

Medications such as antidepressants and mood stabilisers may be used early in the treatment process for eating disorders, as this can help make the therapy sessions you attend more effective.

It's important to remember that recovery from exercise addiction is possible, even though the disorder can be further complicated by an eating disorder.

Severe types of exercise addiction need lifelong management of your emotions and attitudes towards physical activity. Treatment at Priory can provide you with an effective platform for continued recovery and a healthy lifestyle.

Private medical insurance

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers. All of the services we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Addiction treatment
  • Eating disorder treatment

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in their fields of treatment. Whatever your requirements, we're committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

Registered and approved provider

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers.

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