When Exercise Becomes an Unhealthy Obsession

exercise obsession

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Some athletes suffer from an unhealthy addiction to exercise. This can arise for a variety of reasons, including an obsession with perfection or winning, avoiding other aspects of life, and feeling addicted to the physiological changes caused by exercise.

Addictive exercisers may use extreme training as one way to expend calories and maintain or lose body weight in an attempt to improve performance or achieve a desired body shape or weight. They often justify their behavior by believing a serious athlete can never work too hard or too long at their sport.

Discomfort, pain or even injury will not keep an exercise addict from training. Nearly all compulsive exercisers suffer from overtraining syndrome. They often live with muscle strains, soreness, stress fractures and other chronic, overuse injuries, such as tendinitis.

When confronted with this excessive exercise, they may insist that if they didn't work this hard, their performance would suffer. They also tend to cling to the false belief that even the smallest break from training will make them gain weight and be unable to compete at the same level.

In some cases, exercise obsession might be a result of a subtle form of an eating disorder. It is used as an attempt to control or lose weight, or to attain a certain body shape or size.

Exercise Addiction vs. Enjoyment

There are differences between exercise addiction and a love of exercise. Just because someone exercises frequently does not mean they are addicted.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health relies on these factors to determine whether or not exercise addiction is present:

  • Tolerance: You feel the need to increase the amount of exercise you do to feel the same "high" as you did previously.
  • Withdrawal: If you do not exercise, you experience adverse side effects like anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbances.
  • Lack of control: You cannot reduce or stop the amount of exercise you do on your own.
  • Intention effects: You find yourself consistently overdoing the amount of exercise you may have planned.
  • Time: You spend much of your time thinking about, planning, preparing, engaging in, and recovering from exercise. It interferes with other aspects of your life.
  • Reduction in other activities: Other areas of your life suffer because of your exercise, such as your social life, relationships, work, or other hobbies.
  • Continuance: You keep exercising even though you are aware that doing so is causing physical, psychological, and interpersonal problems.

Additional Warning Signs

These behaviors may indicate that exercise is currently an addiction or is in danger of becoming one.

  • You suffer symptoms of overtraining syndrome.
  • You force yourself to exercise even if you don't feel well.
  • You seldom exercise for fun.
  • Every time you exercise, you go as fast or as hard as you can.
  • You experience severe stress and anxiety if you miss a workout.
  • You miss family obligations because you have to exercise.
  • You calculate how much to exercise based on how much you eat.
  • You would rather exercise than get together with friends.
  • You can't relax because you think you're not burning calories.
  • You worry that you'll gain weight if you skip exercising for one day.

Compulsive exercise is as dangerous as food restriction, binging and purging, and the use of diet pills and laxatives. It can lead to eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, as well as a number of serious physical complications including kidney failure, heart attack, and death.

Similarities With Drug Addiction

Compulsive exercise can create similar behaviors to drug addiction. The athlete no longer finds pleasure in exercise, but feels it is necessary. It is no longer a choice. Instead, it has become an obligation.

While exercise may provide a temporary feeling of well-being or euphoria, the athlete requires more and more exercise to reach this state. If they are forced to miss a workout, they will report overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety, similar to withdrawal symptoms.

While some researchers report that excessive exercise causes the body to produce endorphins (hormones secreted by the pituitary gland that block pain, decrease anxiety and create feelings of euphoria) there is still debate about whether one can become physiologically addicted to exercise.

Endorphins are, however, chemically similar to the highly addictive drug morphine, so addiction to exercise is not beyond the realm of possibility. For many athletes, compulsive exercise appears to be psychologically addictive. Such athletes report that reducing their amount of exercise suddenly often results in bouts of severe depression.

Treatment for Compulsive Exercise

Exercise addiction and other eating disorders are serious and can become life-threatening if left untreated. Identifying the type of eating disorder is essential to getting the right help. If you suspect you are addicted to exercise and cannot stop on your own, seek help.

Compulsive exercise is a serious health concern that often requires the intervention of someone close to the athlete, such as a coach, teammate, or family member who recognizes these warning signs and helps the athlete seek professional help.

If you suspect someone close to you is exercising compulsively, you can help by learning more about this condition and talking openly with the athlete about getting appropriate professional help.

A Word From Verywell

A love of exercise is a healthy passion, but sometimes it can develop into more than that. If you find that exercise has become an obligation that interferes with your life, reach out for help (your physician is a good place to start. There are treatment options available to help you recover and find balance in your life.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Freimuth M, Moniz S, Kim SR. Clarifying exercise addiction: Differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. Int J Environ Res Pub Health. 2011;8(10):4069-4081. doi:10.3390/ijerph8104069

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.