With more and more attention given to the need for healthier lifestyles, what could possibly be wrong with exercise? The answer is nothing, when used as an adjunct to a balanced plan for developing and maintaining good health and there are no prohibiting medical factors. However, when exercise takes over a person's life, the potential for addiction is there.
Two diagnostic criteria have been identified as necessary for someone to have exercise addiction. There must be impaired functioning in at least two of these areas: psychological, social, occupational, physical, and behavioral. Secondly, as with other addictions, withdrawal symptoms appear when the behavior is stopped. Within 24 to 36 hours of no exercise, the withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and guilt may be expected to appear.
Exercise addiction is highly correlated with eating disorders. Exercise addiction typically begins with a desire to lose weight. It is unclear at this time whether exercise addiction is a secondary component of eating disorders or if it is a completely separate disorder. Certainly not all individuals with eating disorders develop an exercise addiction, which further complicates this diagnostic dilemma.
It is strongly suspected that exercise addiction may produce changes in the brain. A study done with mice demonstrated that when these mice were denied exercise after an intense run, they were found through brain scans to have increased levels of brain activity in 16 out of 25 brain regions. The affected areas of the brain were the same as those connected to cocaine, morphine, alcohol, or nicotine withdrawal.
It is known that in humans, vigorous exercise triggers the release of endorphins in the brain. Remember that endorphins are the body's natural opiates and they serve to relieve pain and act as a natural tranquilizer, both of which are powerful reinforcers for exercise.
How do you know if you are addicted to exercise? There are some definite signs to watch for, including:
You may develop a regularly scheduled pattern of exercise that you feel you must follow to avoid anxiety.
Exercise takes priority over all other activities.
You notice an increased tolerance to exercise, beyond what would be typically expected.
You experience withdrawal symptoms (such as those already described) following the discontinuation of exercise. When exercise is resumed, you feel intense relief.
You may become aware of a compulsive drive to exercise or others around you may note this and remark on it to you.
You engage in exercise in spite of injuries or physical deterioration.
It is also concerning when a person significantly increases his exercise time to multiple hours per day or seems to always want to exercise alone. For an exercise addict, the exercise may begin to interfere with healthy social interactions. He may decline going to a party with friends or may forgo family activities in favor of exercise. Work productivity or schoolwork may suffer as the person focuses the majority of his attention on his exercise regimen.
A healthy exercise routine will build muscle, improve cardiac functioning, and help a person maintain an appropriate weight for her frame, among other things. An exercise addiction often leads to muscle deterioration, physical weakness, exacerbation of injuries that are not given time to heal, and an unhealthy, low body weight. The addict herself may or may not recognize these problems.
Exercise addiction is similar to food addictions in that both exercise and food are essential to life. Therefore, abstinence is not the answer. What can help? A person who is addicted to exercise will need help from knowledgeable individuals. She might join a gym and work out under the supervision of a professional trainer familiar with her problem. Working out in a class with other people can be motivating as well as beneficial in establishing a healthy pattern of exercise.
Certainly a physical examination by one's doctor will provide an objective evaluation of whether an exercise program is helping or harming one's body. If there is an associated eating disorder present, professional help is absolutely necessary for recovery. That might be individual and/or group therapy, inpatient or partial hospitalization treatment, or residential treatment, depending on the severity of the disorder.