Exercise is enjoyable for many people and part of a healthy lifestyle, and most of us don’t get enough of it. In a society facing chronic obesity, the over-exercisers don’t get much attention; we are more likely to congratulate them for their discipline and dedication than to raise our concerns. However, as with most substances and behaviors, too much of a good thing can be not only less than ideal, but dangerous. Exercise addiction, in which an individual is unable to cease his or her exercise patterns, even when they reach unhealthy levels, is just such an example. Even those who are seeing the negative physical and psychological effects of over-exercising, and who believe they should moderate their behaviors, are often unable to do so. They are compelled to continue their practice. They have lost the power of choice. Exercise addiction is more than a love of sport or a craving for the endorphin release associated with intense physical exercise. It is the manifestation of mental illness. The following factors can help explain how exercise addiction can become grooved in an individual’s life, but they alone are not the causes.
Maintaining a rigid and exacting exercise regimen can create the illusion of control in a life that otherwise feels unmanageable. To let up on the activity, or to take a rest day, seems like it would invite chaos and destruction—like the world would spin out of orbit. Some may fear that one day missed will turn into several, and soon they’ll return to the “lazy couch potatoes” they believe they are or that they will wake up and suddenly be fat. This is an especially prevalent fear among people who have previously been overweight.
Whether an “addictive personality” actually exists is a matter of debate, but for many there seems to be a heightened draw to “rewarding” substances and behaviors. For these types, anything they try twice and like can become an addiction. Exercise, though challenging and perhaps not as enjoyable an indulgence as alcohol or food, brings such a sense of reward and accomplishment that many will be compelled to do it to excess. Personality types that would be described as intense or perfectionistic can also tend toward exercise addiction, as do overachievers.
Anyone who has completed an intense workout and experienced the endorphin release knows how good exercise can feel. Some, however, will be so enchanted by the “runner’s high” that they will be unable to go even a day without it, working harder and harder to achieve the release they crave.
For many people, enough is never enough. While normal exercisers enjoy the activity and seem to know how to keep it at a healthy level, addicts have an inability to bring a sense of balance to their working out. It’s not just a part of a healthy life, it is life. Inclement weather, illness, the needs of family and friends do not sway them from their predetermined goals. Despite work or other commitments, they may spend hours a day running, lifting weights, doing yoga or walking. As a result, health and relationships often suffer.
The condition of body dysmorphia, in which the individual is unable to accurately assess the size and composition of his or her body, can also be a contributing factor in exercise addiction, as well as eating disorders. A woman, despite unhealthy thinness, may look in the mirror and only see fat. A man, believing he is skinny and unmuscular, may spend hours lifting weights trying to bulk up. No amount of change alters the behavior or the image that the individual sees when he or she looks in the mirror. Thus the activity continues to an unhealthy degree.
For some, exercise and time at the gym provide an escape from a life they would rather not deal with. In much the same way that alcohol and drugs can provide a flight from reality, some will find their escapes in exercise. Excessive hours spent at the gym may cause them to neglect life responsibilities and commitments.
Anxiety and Depression
Those who have struggled with anxiety and depression may also be particularly susceptible to developing an exercise addiction. What may begin as a way to healthfully manage the symptoms of mental illness can become an obsession. Exercise may be the only oasis of good feelings in a life that is otherwise dismal or terrifying, and thus they pursue it with unwavering intensity. Exercise addiction is a serious mental condition that can result in physical and psychological consequences. Advanced cases can even be fatal. If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive exercising, get help today.