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PsychCentral Addiction and Over-Exercise


Joe Koelzer

This article has been shared from PsychCentral. Copyright remains with the author at all times.

Do you get incredibly twitchy and upset if you miss a workout? What about your recovery time – is it getting longer? Have you been experiencing a lot of overuse injuries?

If you answered yes to these questions, you might be dealing with an exercise addiction. If you have a feeling that your workout routine has tipped into over-exercise territory, read on.

What is Exercise Addiction?

Over-exercising is a behavioral addiction, meaning that it’s an action you persist in despite negative consequences.

That said, exercise addiction isn’t technically a mental health diagnosis; there is no diagnostic listing in the DSM-V. However, research published in the British Medical Journal “encourages health-care professionals to recognize and understand the risks of exercise addiction.”

Symptoms of exercise addiction appear in about 0.3% to 0.5% of the general population worldwide, according to Heather Hausenblas, a professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University in Florida and lead author of the paper.

So, while there isn’t a current DSM listing for exercise addiction, millions of people all over the world are dealing with over-exercise.

Physical Components of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction tends to link up with eating disorders and food addiction. While the symptoms are different, there’s an overarching theme: a strong desire for control in the area of body image, fitness, food, and weight.

There is also a neurological component to over-exercising. After all, when you go for a run or exert yourself physically, you trigger a cascade of biochemical changes that increase your sense of well-being.

When you exercise, you produce more dopamine and endorphins. These chemicals give you a boost, making you feel like you’re on top of the world.

Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

We listed a few of the symptoms of exercise addiction in the introduction to this post; here’s a more complete list.

  • Feeling compulsive and emotional dependent about working out (“If I miss a workout, I’ll be a total mess; I can’t miss a workout for any reason!”)
  • Slower recovery times
  • Overuse injuries
  • Other health issues as a result of over-exercise (such as depletion in vital minerals like iron)
  • A feeling of elation after exercising
  • Attempting to dial down the frequency and intensity of your workouts, and failing
  • Consistently giving up other important aspects of life in order to exercise (for example, getting too little sleep or time with loved ones)

How to Heal from Exercise Addiction

Recovery from exercise addiction is all about addressing and healing core issues that lead to addictive behavior.

It’s not about asking you to stop running forever; rather, it’s about figuring out what it is that you’re running from, and working on that.

What are some of the underlying core issues that are highly correlated with exercise addiction? Here’s a quick list.

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Self-Harming Behavior
  • Low Self-Esteem

The Voice of Exercise Addiction Recovery

“Here’s the good news. I know what to do when I get all jacked up [with over-exercise]. I made an appointment with my therapist …. I’m taking it easy on the elliptical—reminding myself that if I use it every time I get anxious, every time the fire starts inside of me: I’ll never get off of it. I need different strategies to deal with my fire. Strategies that don’t make me disappear.”

That’s a quote from Glennon Doyle’s essay “The Storm Before the Calm.” Doyle is an activist, author, speaker, and recovering alcoholic and bulimic, and her words highlight several important aspects of addiction recovery.

First, you can’t go it alone. Reaching out for qualified, compassionate, professional help is imperative.

Next, you get to choose how you respond to the intensity of the feelings within you. Over-exercise is not your only option. In partnership with your therapist, you can find less self-destructive ways to manage the fire within you.

Examples include:

Lastly, you need to find strategies to stay here and not disappear, because this world needs you. Your loved ones need you. You have a contribution to make here that is yours alone.

Don’t let over-exercise or any other behavioral addiction keep you off the path of living your purpose. Yes, you have a fire inside of you … so use it to shine.

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