Can You Become Addicted To Exercise?

By: Lakeview Health Staff
Published: May 21, 2018

Can you become addicted to exercise?   It’s a fair question, considering that exercise is becoming more and more integrated into addiction treatment centers all over the nation. Likewise, our integrative health approach at Lakeview Health integrates wellness therapy and other forms of physical therapy in programs like our Pain Recovery Services program, which is a pain recovery solution alternative to traditional pain management that leverages habit-forming medications. With exercise being used so commonly in places where addiction is being treated, it is a good discussion to have on whether or not exercise addiction is a legitimate concern. In this article, Shane Piccolo, Lakeview Health Fitness Instructor, attempts to get to the bottom of it.

How Exercise Addiction Develops

It starts as a positive. Your body just went through Hell with detox, waning itself from what it yearned for. The recovery center you attended offered a fitness program designed to teach you how to exercise and introduce your body to a positive sense of accomplishment through movement. Everything went well at first. You felt better. You looked better. You grew stronger. But then something changed. You notice your body is not developing fast enough, or you aren’t losing weight as quickly as you want. You add an extra work out here and there and cut back on unhealthy foods. It starts to work, but not exactly how you want. So you train harder. Now you find yourself working out multiple times a day, and not focusing on your recovery, your job or your family. Most of your time is spent thinking about going to the gym, and if you miss out, you experience feelings of guilt and shame. You become angry and irritable, and lash out at those around you. Exercise starts to change you…consume you… just as your drug of choice once did.

Don’t Replace One Addiction With Another

As a fitness professional, I want you to reach your goals. As a professional in addiction recovery, I do not want you to replace your drug of choice with exercise. The same habit that started as recreational drug use and led to addiction can start as trying to get healthy through exercise. A sense of feeling good can lead to an obsession overtaking your mind and body until serious consequences come about. Exercise is irreplaceable in living a healthy life. Not enough can be said about exercise as an aid in helping people in recovery build self-confidence, make positive choices and correct the damage addiction has on the body. In the majority of cases, people do not need to worry about exercise becoming hazardous. Many have the power to take a step back if they realize they are training too often or too hard. Those suffering from substance use disorder and mental health issues do not always have the awareness or strength to see or stop the problem. They did something unhealthy for so long, and now they are being healthy. Unfortunately, too much exercise can become unhealthy, too. Exercise addiction is a real thing and is often overlooked or ignored.

The Link Between Exercise Addiction, Substance Use Disorder, and Other Addictions

In regards to the population recovering from substance use disorder, the risk of exercise addiction is arguably higher. There is actually the term counselors and therapists use to describe the replacement of one addiction, with another: cross-addiction. Replacing one addiction with another is far from uncommon in a population that struggles with addiction one day at a time. With fitness routines becoming a major part of recovery programs throughout the country, let’s look at some trends as to why those in charge should be on the lookout for any and all signs of exercise addiction.   Crossfit: With the upward rise in competitive exercise, the urges to compete bring about a rise to constantly work harder than the day before. According to one study, approximately 5% of “crossfitters” fit the mold of exercise addiction. Driven by passion and burdened by guilt, the population of young men involved are at a higher risk. As the immersion of Crossfit programs entering the realm of addiction as a means of recovery, this study should be looked at by all those involved.   Young Athletes: As a young collegiate athlete looking to turn their love of the game into a profession, the urge to constantly improve is a top priority. In order to do so, effective workouts become more and more frequent, and the belief of rest and recovery fall by the wayside. A particular study on runners showed 20% of college athletes and 50% of marathon runners are addicted to exercise. As more and more athletes enter recovery centers, the risk of exercise addiction should be recognized as a high possibility.   Sex Addicts: Sex addicts are abundantly present in drug rehabilitation. These individuals are at high risk for exercise addiction. Working hard to develop the ideal body of sexual prowess, or developing the strength to never feel as weak as when they were assaulted are all reasons sex addicts look to exercise. While in treatment, be on the lookout for the healthy activity becoming an unhealthy fixation.

Know The Risks. The Key Is Moderation.

Whether you are a fitness or recovery professional, someone seeking substance use disorder treatment, or someone already in recovery, understanding that exercise is a positive experience for growth and not a replacement for feeling good is the key to avoiding exercise addiction. Even though it is common to chase the ever-popular runner’s high with exercise, it’s important to moderate your activity and to understand that you can become addicted to exercise. Educate your patients, loved ones or yourself on the safe habits of a healthy routine, and the downside of excessive behavior. Understand the ins and outs of alcoholism and exercise. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has shown immensely positive results in recovery, but there is always a risk. Know the risks, practice moderation, and you will prevent exercise addiction and live a healthy lifestyle.

Exercise Addiction Inventory Survey

Various studies have looked at exercise addiction in athletes, college students, and the general population. Those at risk vary from 5%-50% depending on age, gender and reason for exercise or sport. A screening tool known as the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) was developed to help fitness professionals and coaches determine if those they work with are at risk of developing exercise addiction. This assessment covers the importance of exercise in your life and how it affects your life. The EAI comprises only six statements, each corresponding to one of the symptoms in the ’components’ model of addiction. Each statement is rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Take the survey below to see if you are at risk for exercise addiction.