Are you addicted to exercise?

Can your commitment to exercise be bad for your health? 

A popular fitness meme regularly shared on social media by gym enthusiasts and serious athletes proudly states: “Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated!” 

While pushing your physical limits to achieve new personal bests is an admirable trait, problems arise when it becomes something else. 

When taken to extremes, exercise actually damages our health, often leading to conditions like anaemia, arthritis, heart problems, memory loss, soft tissue and bone injuries, and even infertility.

Where the desire to become fit and healthy becomes an all-consuming obsession, we can generally start to frame this as exercise addiction.

So how can you determine if you’ve crossed over from being a dedicated gym-goer to a wild-eyed exercise addict?

The tell-tale signs associated with exercise addiction include:

  • Withdrawal from social and family commitments
  • Relationship issues due to time away from partners and family
  • Overwhelming guilt at missing even a single exercise session
  • Obsessing over workouts or the planning of training programmes
  • Downplaying the time you spend exercising
  • Getting defensive when confronted about your training habits
  • Poor productivity in other areas of life such as work and home
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Neuroticism

To better determine if you suffer from exercise addiction, it’s worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are your exercise habits causing issues in your life? Are you losing friends or experiencing relationship issues?
  • Are people in your life complaining about the amount of exercise you do?
  • Do you constantly need to keep increasing the amount of exercise you do to keep feeling good about yourself?
  • Is exercise making you sick and weak instead of strong and healthy?
  • Are you constantly exhausted?
  • Is your productivity declining?
  • Do you look and feel run down?
  • Are you getting enough sleep?
  • Are you still exercising despite an injury?
  • Do you often squeeze in extra training sessions whenever you can?
  • Are you unable to stop training in the face of various other responsibilities?
  • Are you attaching your self-worth to the outcomes of your exercise or training?
  • Do you base decisions on your ability to exercise, like where you choose to vacation?
  • If you’re training toward a specific goal or event, are you able to take a break afterwards?

Types of Exercise Addiction

According to Renee Shearing, a Cape Town-based registered Occupational Therapist and Tension/Trauma Release Exercise and EMDR practitioner, diagnosing a condition such as exercise addiction can be tricky because it is commonly associated with other psychological disorders.

Primary Exercise Addiction

There are people who chase the endorphin, serotonin and dopamine rush that comes from exercise, similar to that of some drug and alcohol addicts. The release of these neurotransmitters acts on the nervous system to create a sense of pleasure or reward, which exercise addicts may develop a dependency to. This is termed primary exercise addiction, as the physical activity itself is the gratification.

Secondary Exercise Addiction

The other, more common form of exercise addiction is often classified as a secondary addiction because it occurs in conjunction with an eating disorder and is often used to control and manipulate weight. “People who suffer from conditions such as exercise bulimia or anorexia athletica tend to use excessive exercise to mask their calorie-purging behaviour,” explains Shearing. “However, it is also a mental obsession, in the same context as that of an eating disorder.”

Exercise addiction can lead to:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Regular illness due to a suppressed immune system
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Ill health
  • Heart Arrhythmia
  • Injuries

Be honest with yourself in your response to the questions. And remember, too much of a good thing is never a good idea.

Exercise addiction is real. If you experience any of the above symptoms or feel like you cannot control your desire to work out, it may be time to reach out for help before it gets worse.

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Author: Tanja Schmitz

Founder and Editor of Fitness Magazine. You’ll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.

Founder and Editor of Fitness Magazine. You'll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.