When people hear the phrase “exercise addiction,” it’s easy for some to dismiss it. After all, exercise is healthy, and it’s impossible to be too healthy, right?
In fact, an exercise addiction can cause physical damage. A normal exercise routine includes regular rest days in order to let the body recharge and recuperate. Small tears in the muscles can occur when we push our limits during exercise, and this can ultimately make us stronger. But first, those tears have to heal.
Someone with an exercise addiction compulsively engages in exercise. They may struggle with the idea of taking a rest day. It may be very uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing for them to not train their bodies at every possible moment.
Recognizing Exercise Addiction
How do you know if your gym buddies are engaging in healthy levels of exercise and aren’t turning into gym addicts? Here are some signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Needing to exercise more in order to get the same psychological feel-good effect
- Exercising despite injury
- Spending less time with other hobbies or interests and an inordinate amount of time exercising
- Feeling agitated or tense when unable to exercise
- Having a difficult time reducing the intensity or duration of workouts
If you work in a gym, for example, and see the same person come in every day and do the exact same workouts for hours on end, there is a good chance that this person exercises compulsively despite the wear and tear on their body.
Why Is Exercise Addicting?
Why is exercise addicting in the first place? We know that chemical dependencies (drug addictions) affect neurotransmitters in the brain that cause the brain to produce endorphins and dopamine. These same chemicals are released when we exercise.
In fact, exercise is often suggested as a way to combat depression. The “runner’s high” effect is very real.
Of course, not everyone who exercises will become addicted to it. There are other factors at play, including a perfectionist personality, low self-esteem and co-occurring eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Exercise Addiction Treatment
The basis of exercise addiction treatment is psychotherapy, but there are many therapy modules that your therapist may consider beneficial for your situation. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, helps to make you aware of damaging behaviors and then make appropriate changes throughout the day.
If, for example, you find that you want to go for a run “just because” you have an extra 30 minutes in your schedule, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you to recognize this as a sign of exercise addiction and to devote the time to something other than exercise.
Strong social and familial support systems can also be beneficial during exercise addiction treatment. When family and friends play a role in your treatment, they are in a position to help you when you need it. They can help you fill your free time with activities other than exercise. They can help to boost your self-esteem throughout the process with a positive atmosphere and supportive advice. They may even work closely with your therapist for a particular treatment approach.
Exercise Addiction Denial
You work out and have a gym membership, but surely an exercise addiction doesn’t apply to you, right? The first step toward getting help is recognizing that there is a problem, and denying that you are an exercise or gym addict will only prolong the time it takes to recover.
Make an honest evaluation of your exercise-related activities to determine how often you have:
- Canceled or skipped work or social obligations in order to exercise
- Replaced another activity, including spending time with friends or family, in order to exercise
- Felt anxious or irritable when unable to exercise
- Exercised despite illness, injury or fatigue
- Been told that you exercise too much
In addition, if you only feel satisfied when you are exercising and you can think of nothing you’d rather do (including eat or sleep), you may have an exercise addiction.
Do you also struggle with your relationship with food? Exercise addiction often co-occurs with bulimia in an unhealthy effort to make drastic changes to one’s self-image. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are also associated with exercise addiction, because the addict strives to achieve the so-called perfect body.
There is help for exercise addiction, and working out doesn’t have to take over your life. To restore balance physically, mentally and socially, the first step is to speak with a therapist who specializes in exercise addiction treatment. Call today for details.