When Is Exercise an Addiction or a Healthy Lifestyle Behavior?
It may be argued that almost any positive behavior can be taken to an extreme that actually ends up impacting physical and psychological health in a negative manner. Exercise is one of those behaviors, as regular engagement is beneficial and can contribute to health, disease prevention, and mental well-being; but it can also become an addiction. “Exercise addiction is a process addiction in which a person engages in compulsive, mood-altering behaviors with the intention of avoiding painful feelings,” said Kim Dennis, MD, CEO and medical director of Timberland Knolls Residential Treatment Center. “Those addicted to exercise chase the ‘high,’ and this behavior ultimately becomes unmanageable and destructive.”
Experts suggest the prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is about 3%. This value is expected to be much higher among other select populations such as endurance athletes, body-weight category athletes, bodybuilders, and even sport science students. Exercise addiction also tends to cluster with food disorders, work addiction, caffeine use, and shopping. These may illustrate aspects of life control or achievement that common Americans are led to believe to be exceptionally important.
It is not unusual for individuals with an exercise addiction to experience depression, trauma, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Furthermore, the majority of individuals with eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa) often engage in excessive exercise. In fact, an estimated 39-48% of those with an eating disorder also suffer from exercise addiction. These two psychological issues can feed upon each other in a way that makes either issue hard to remedy without qualified professional help. “As with many addictions, dependence on exercise can start innocently,” adds Dr. Dennis. “The individual often receives validation or reinforcement for exercising. Once an individual is hooked, a need to achieve the euphoric state eclipses all else. Work, family, and social life frequently take a back seat to the necessity of exercising. If deprived, we see withdrawal symptoms just like you would with any other addiction.” Personal trainers who can clearly recognize the signs and symptoms of severe exercise dependence should use tact in approaching the issue and show the client they are looking out for their best interests. Behavioral and cognitive therapies are usually needed for recalcitrant cases where addiction coincides with an eating disorder, making referral to a qualified health professional necessary.