exercise addictionYou may have heard about athletes who push through pain and fatigue, ignoring all warning signs to get to their desired results; the CrossFit junkie who hurts his lower back doing clean-and-jerks; the bodybuilder who tears his pec muscle; the Olympic figure skater who continues to train despite an ankle sprain. They may have coaches and trainers who tell them to stop training in order to go through a period of rehabilitation, and many of them listen. But others may ignore the advice and follow the “no pain, no gain” motto. Would you say these athletes are addicted to their sports, or that they are merely devoted? And what about everyday fitness enthusiasts? The runners who add an extra five miles to their daily runs, or the weight- training gym goer who doesn’t take a day off?

Exercise Addiction: A Description

Healthline describes exercise addiction as “an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise…often a result of body image disorders and eating disorders.” Furthermore, the article states that the traits of an exercise addict are like addicts of other behaviors: they obsess over exercising; they engage in exercise even if it’s causing them physical pain and injury; they may keep exercising even if their desire is to stop; and they may even keep their obsessive exercising a secret from their loved ones. The clinical definition of exercise addiction further identifies the criteria as follows:

  • Tolerance: The individual has the insatiable urge to increase the amount of exercise to feel accomplished or to get that “high” that he so desires.
  • Withdrawal: Similar to the withdrawal effects of other behavioral and substance addicts, exercise addicts also experience negative effects when they don’t exercise. These effects can include anxiety and irritability, and often escalate to the disruption of sleep.
  • Lack of control: They may want to quit or reduce the amount of exercise they do very badly, but are unsuccessful at their attempts.
  • Intention effects: They try, but are unsuccessful at, sticking to the duration of time that they had intended to spend on their routine.
  • Time: Their devotion lies in exercise; if they aren’t engaging in the exercise, they are thinking about it and preparing for it.
  • Reduction in other activities: Other activities that don’t involve exercise cease, whether they are social, occupational, or recreational.
  • Continuance: They continue to exercise even though they know the harm it is creating for them physically, psychologically, or interpersonally.

Exercise addiction often co-occurs with other addictions, researchers have concluded. One study found that 63 percent of its participants also had a compulsive buying addiction and 70 percent had the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, with an average of 2.5 self-induced vomiting or purging episodes per week. The most common disorders that co-occur with exercise addiction are eating disorders.

The topic of exercise addiction really resonates with me because I went through a three-year period in my life when I was an addict myself. When I competed in the Bikini Division of the National Physique Committee, I worked out two times a day for six days a week. I was also a personal trainer for a private gym, so my days started at 5 a.m. I would then head to the gym to do my morning cardio sessions on an empty stomach before a full day of training clients. The duration of my morning cardio sessions ranged from 30-60 minutes. For the weight training focus of my competition prep, I worked with my coach one day per week and trained alone for the remaining five days, usually in the evenings. After my training sessions, I would jump back on the stair-stepper for an additional 20-30 minutes. I ate six meals a day, spaced out over 2-3 hours, and the calories I ate gradually decreased about two to three times per month as I got closer to competition day. Every food item I ate was precisely measured and weighed to meet my coach’s exact requirements.

The final week before a competition, known in the bodybuilding world as “peak week,” focuses on the final touches of dialing in the physique for the stage. This meant that I ate a lot of plain spinach, tilapia, chicken breasts, and sweet potatoes, three days of water loading (drinking about 2-2 ½ gallons of water as opposed to my usual 1 ½ gallon of water), and then a four-day period of tapering off water until I was just taking small sips on the day of the competition. During this process of competition prep, I always felt like a zombie going through my cardio and weight training routine. Despite feeling extreme fatigue, I told myself that it had to be done for me to bring my best package to the stage. My thought was that my body was stubborn. While other competitors were eating burgers and fries the night before their competition for a “carb load,” I was eating fish and spinach and doing cardio, praying for the invisible layer of fat on my lower abs to magically disappear. Typically, I would lose about five pounds of water weight during this week alone.

I was miserable on competition day due to dehydration and feeling weak from months and months of vigorous training and strict dieting. I told myself repeatedly that I would stop competing, but it wasn’t that easy. I had a terrifying experience at a summer competition that was held at an outside venue and realized that I was putting by body through life-threatening disordered eating and excessive exercise habits. I was at the Muscle Beach International Competition in Venice, California. All competitors sat out in the hot sun until it was our turn to get on stage. I was already dehydrated, but after a couple of hours of sitting outside, I really began to feel the effects of what I knew to be heat stroke. I was shaky, my muscles continuously cramped and my pulse raced. I was disorientated and wobbled around in my heels, and vomited before I got on stage. Then, I vomited more when I got off the stage. I went to the on-site paramedic and was immediately treated. I was unable to make it to the night show, so I was automatically disqualified. I was devastated and scared, and when I talked to my coach on the phone, he was pretty shaken up as well. It was a scary and painful experience that made me realize the toll that competing was taking on my body. And yet I kept going…with the diet, with the two-a-days. I was addicted. My whole life revolved around my workouts and diet, and I no longer had a social life because I didn’t know how to create a healthy balance.

Risk factors and treatment of exercise addiction

According to Addiction.com, there are six different factors that can lead to exercise addiction.

  • Physiological factors: Exercise releases dopamine from the brain’s reward system, and this is the body’s pleasure hormone. For those who already have addictive tendencies, this is a double-edged sword, because they want more and more of that feel-good sensation.
  • Personality: Certain personality types are more susceptible to exercise addiction, including those who are obsessive-compulsive, those who are perfectionists, and those who suffer from anxiety.
  • Genetics: While there isn’t a direct DNA link to primary exercise addiction, genetics do play a factor when exercise addiction is secondary to an eating disorder. Those with these genetic mutations have an 85-90 percent chance of suffering from an eating disorder.
  • Having another addiction: A person’s risk of getting addicted to exercise increases when that individual has another addiction, whether it be another behavioral addiction such as gambling, or a substance addiction such as nicotine.
  • Pressures of society: Many of us have felt pressure from our peers and society to achieve a certain standard of beauty that can only be achieved by following a very strict diet and exercise regimen. This can create an unhealthy body image, thus leading to the feeling that more is never enough.

Treatment for exercise addiction, as with other addictions, starts with an individual realizing that he/she has a problem. Since exercise plays such an important role in our health, quitting indefinitely to live a sedentary life is not a good idea. Instead, refraining from exercise for a period of time during the beginning phases of treatment can help to control the desire to exercise. This is what helped me to overcome my addiction. I also quit my job as an in-gym personal trainer, because being in the gym for eight hours a day for an exercise addict is like an alcoholic living in a house full of liquor. Moderating the exercise or introducing a new form of exercise can also be very helpful in achieving a healthy balance. Additionally, speaking to a therapist and building a social circle that is supportive can be helpful in achieving long-term recovery.

If you or a loved one is suffering from an addiction or mental illness of any kind, please know that help is out there. Seek out a mental health expert who can help to guide you on the path to recovery. Refer to the CRISIS Hotline for additional support: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).


Please note that this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We insist that you always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical/health condition or treatment and before initiating a new health care regime. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the STYR app or on www.MyNutritioniQ.com.

If you are interested to hear more and receive personalized nutrition, check out STYR’s app, fitness tracker and suite of connected smart devices. Through the platform, you can track and log activity, food, hydration, sleep, nutrition, mood and more to personalize your nutrition needs based on data, science and access to registered dietitians, nutritionists and personal trainers.

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