When Fitness Goes Too Far: What Happens When Exercise Becomes Addictive

August 10, 2015
by Annalise Mantz for Thrive Market
When Fitness Goes Too Far: What Happens When Exercise Becomes Addictive

For most of us, a little more motivation to hit the gym after work is a good thing. After all, nearly 80 percent of American adults don't even come close to getting enough exercise each day. But if your life revolves around your daily gym habit, you might have more to worry about than booking your bike for spin class.

As the obesity epidemic plagues most of the United States, some facets of society rely on daily $35 spin classes to get in a workout and a little "sweat therapy session."  Exercise instructors report seeing an increase in the number of young women heading to back-to-back workout classes, and sales of gym memberships have soared over the past 15 years.

For a small fraction of the population—just three percent—this fascination with fitness could turn into an exercise addiction.

This condition hasn't yet been officially deemed a mental disorder and experts don't fully understand how exercise addictions start, but some believe the positive feelings associated with physical activity are behind it. Athletes often experience a "runners high"—a release of endorphins that can trigger a feeling of euphoria and an intense satisfaction. Exercise can also produce endocannabinoids, the body's version of THC. Together, endorphins and endocannabinoids create one heck of a pleasurable feeling.

When athletes start to purposefully use their workouts to generate positive emotions or escape from their problems, their relationship with exercise starts to shift from a healthy habit to a dependency. Instead of facing issues head on and dealing with them as they arise, athletes will dive into workouts and avoid their issues. And the effects can be devastating.

Exercise addiction can also manifest as a symptom of disordered eating. The Chicago Tribune reported that approximately 39 percent of people with anorexia and 23 percent of people with bulimia have an exercise addiction; it makes sense that these disordered habits go hand in hand, as exercise can be a form of purging for those with eating disorders. Instead of purging by making themselves sick, women (and men) instead burn through calories in class after class, logging mile after mile until they are at a calorie deficit.

Besides the anxiety and stress that occurs when addicts can't get their usual fitness fix, the physical effects of overworking the body can be dramatic. Some may be able to get away with overtraining for a while, but eventually the physical ramifications will take their toll.

A body that's overtrained doesn't have time to recover, so those who are exercising too much will feel tired and fatigued during their workouts. Plus, the chance of injury skyrockets if you train when you're tired, so often those addicted to exercise will find themselves fighting injury after injury and dealing with chronic pain.

Exercise addicts often lose a substantial amount of weight initially, but then body catches on to what's happening and it will become increasingly more difficult for those with an exercise addiction to make physical changes in their body. Because of the decrease in body fat and the hormonal imbalances that occur when you're pushing your body too hard without rest and recovery, the body will essentially go into starvation mode and hold on to as much nutrition as possible. Translated, that means that athletes will stop building muscle and will start gaining fat even if they're training like crazy, as the body acts to protect itself.

Mentally, people who are overtraining will suffer from insomnia, battle depression and constant worries, and feel fatigued all the time.

So, how do you know when your gym habit becomes an addiction? Experts say that if your behavior meets all of the following criteria, you could be addicted to exercise.

-Salience:

Working out becomes the most important part of your life. If other plans occur when you're supposed to workout, you'll opt for the workout instead of social hour... always.

-Mood modification:

When just going to the gym or running can totally change your mood. If you have a bad workout, or don't get in as many hours as you'd like, you have an awful day.

-Tolerance:

You constantly have to increase the amount of exercise (or anything else) you need in order to feel satisfied.

-Withdrawal symptoms:

Skipping a workout causes you to feel upset, uncomfortable, and even experience physical symptoms like shakiness, dizziness, and irritability.

-Conflict:

Exercising begins to conflict with your family and friends, with your day-to-day life and work, and even with your personal happiness and well-being.

-Relapse:

Even when  you try to slow down or take time off to recuperate, you continually go back to intense periods of working out.

It's ok to look forward to your workouts, but if your happiness revolves around getting your workout or burning a certain amount of calories a day, you might have a problem. If you or someone you know exhibits most or all of these symptoms, consider seeking help from a therapist or doctor.

Photo credit: IvanClow via Flickr

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This article is related to: Exercise, Fitness, Working out, Endorphins, Exercise addiction

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