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Exercise Addiction: Is it Possible to Become Gym Addicted?

Last Updated: January 21, 2021

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Physical activities such as exercises are some of the healthiest body maintenance cultures. Exercises are often recommended by medical practitioners, dieticians, trainers, and all healthcare system professionals. Exercises improve metabolism, boost physical and mental health as well as strength levels and physique. However, there is such a thing as exercise addiction, and many individuals exhibit all the symptoms of a person at risk of becoming a fitness addict without knowing. How does one distinguish those who are over-exercising from regular athletes devoted to perfecting their skill through frequent training? A broad understanding of the co-occurring disorders associated with excessive exercise will be invaluable in understanding how exercise addiction could disguise itself as fitness enthusiasm.

Exercise Addiction Overview

The need to stay fit and trim and blend into the acceptable societal definition of physically appealing, healthy, strong, or to maintain athletic performance, often leads many individuals into becoming fitness addicts. Statistically, the prevalence rate of fitness addicts was 4% in schools, 8.7% in people who attended the gym regularly, and about 21% in individuals with some form of an eating disorder. The same report showed that 8.5% of Italian youths within the age of 13 to 20 were at risk of exercise addiction.

Exercise addiction is characterized as a behavioral disorder that is often associated with a deep sense of guilt or Fear of missing out when one is not exercising. Fitness addicts are also liable to ignore pains and injury caused by the rigorous and continuous indulgence in physical exercise. Such a person may constantly obsess over their physique and often fuss over presumed bodily inadequacies.

Man doing triceps dips exercise.

What Causes Excessive Exercise?

Exercise has a bit of a similarity with drug use, in the sense that it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, which are neurotransmitters in the brain that are referred to as the “feel good” hormones. The fitness addict can experience the rewarding feeling of these neurotransmitters anytime they work out, which makes them over-indulge in physical fitness. The addictive feeling of neurotransmitters is one of the causes of over-exercising.

Other Causes of Overexercising Include:

A Desire for Physical Perfection

In the era of social networks and social network addicts, a well-developed gym body is a trend that has got thousands of people spending endless hours in the gym. The need to attain a certain body form pushes people to indulge in excessive exercise. This usually becomes an unbreakable routine due to the development of exercise addiction.

An Eating Disorder

Eating disorders such as Bulimia and Anorexia nervosa are conditions that may push individuals to excessive exercise. The fear of gaining weight, depression, and low self-esteem that comes with gaining excess weight are influencers that may ultimately provoke an enthusiasm to continuously work out to achieve their idea of the perfect body.

Exhausted mature man wiping sweat.

A Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Physical fitness becomes overkill, especially for individuals who have a condition called body dysmorphic disorder. This is a mental health problem where one consistently perceives flaws in their physical appearance, causing them distress and anxiety. This often drives them to persistently work out to change their superficial physical defect.

Exercise Addiction Risk Groups

The categories of individuals who are at risk of over-exercising and, in the process, develop an exercise addiction are referred to as the risk groups. They are usually the most vulnerable and can be tipped over the edge to cause harm themselves while over-indulging in physical fitness. These risk groups are:

Those Pressured to Stay in Shape

A large population falls in this category, either through peer pressure, preserving a certain appearance, social status, or maintaining athletic performance.

People Who are Overweight

In many cases, people who are overweight and are stigmatized for their body appearance set out to achieve their ideal body form through an extreme weight loss regimen that may lead to becoming gym addicted.

Former Drug or Alcohol Addicts

Individuals who were previously drug and alcohol addicts take up healthy programs to deal with the excesses of their past and to fill the void of addiction.

Types of Exercise Addiction

Various types of exercise addiction can be distinguished based on their nature, why they occur, and circumstances that lead to their prevalence. It would be inappropriate to classify all fitness addicts as the same without in-depth research on the causes of their dependency on strenuous physical workouts. Following specific criteria, some types of exercise addiction are:

Primary Addiction

This behavioral addiction is characterized by an obsession with working out excessively but has no underlying mental condition involved. This is usually predominant in males and occurs in response to the release of endorphins. The endorphin “high” is what progresses into an addiction.

Secondary Addiction

This condition co-occurs with a mental disorder. It is mostly seen in females and often occurs due to consciousness of body image. It is commonly seen in individuals with eating disorders such as Bulimia nervosa and Anorexia nervosa. Deficit nutrients in conjunction with obsessive exercise can lead to serious health problems.

What are Exercise Addiction Signs?

There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing,” and when physical fitness begins to affect the physical and mental health or begins to take a toll on one’s social life as well as other aspects, then it is a problem.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the recommended exercise schedule per week is 150 minutes. This means about 21 minutes of exercise per day or 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.

Anything above the benchmark becomes a risk and can lead to exhaustion, depression, injuries, lasting physical harm, and others.

Here are Some Signs of Addiction to Exercise:

  • Tolerance – this sign of addiction comes as a craving to increase the intensity of the exercise in order to feel the “buzz” as well as a sense of accomplishment.
  • Withdrawal-based – the absence of exercise may trigger negative mental feedbacks such as irritability, lack of sleep, anxiety, restlessness, and others.
  • Reduction in life activities – due to the lifestyle of the gym addicted, such a person may be unable to keep up with occupational, social, or other recreational activities that matter.
  • No control - Those who have tried to reduce or stop exercising but cannot fall in this category. They usually return to excessive exercise after unsuccessful attempts to quit.
  • Intention Effects – the inability to stick to a specific routine. This addiction is characterized by the individual in question constantly exceeding the amount of time allocated to physical fitness.
  • Continuance effect – the individual may continue to work out despite injuries sustained and aggravating physical, interpersonal, and psychological problems.

So here is a quick recap on the obvious signs that one may be gym addicted:

  • Spending an extended amount of time on exercises
  • Desiring to increase the amount of exercise or time under tension to achieve fitness goals
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety or fatigue without exercises
  • Unable to stop or reduce the frequency of exercises
  • Skipping important activities or duties to attend the gym regularly
  • Inability to stop exercising, even when afflicted with injuries

Health Complications of Over Exercising

When the individual human capacity for physical fitness is exceeded, one may begin to experience negative side effects both physically and psychologically. Some of the risks are:

  • An unhealthy overlap with work and relationships
  • Exposure to long-term injury
  • Negative social impact
  • Continued exercising despite being deemed medically unfit

Some health problems that can be anticipated with over-exercising are:

  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Torn or strained muscles or tendons
  • Joint impairment
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Insomnia
  • Impaired performance
  • Decreased motor coordination
  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Recurring gym injuries

Treatment Approaches for Exercise Addiction

As far as gym addiction goes, the easiest way to manage its cravings is to practice self-control. This means slowly easing off from physical activities to the shorter, less strenuous regimen. Another option is to completely change exercise routines to moderate workout techniques. In some cases, a fitness addict may need to lay off workouts for a while in order to gain control of their cravings.

Fitness addicts who may have an extremely negative response to abstaining from exercises over a period of time may have to seek professional counseling, join support groups, or enroll in a rehabilitation program.

Ask About Counseling

A professional counselor would work closely with the individual in defining a realistic fitness goal and discuss specifics on what should constitute a healthy exercise and what may be too much. A counselor may also suggest appropriate schedules, diet, and lifestyle to help the individual get their lives back on track. Counselors understand the psychological complexities responsible for compulsive exercising and are usually experienced in proffering the best health solutions.

Joining a Support Group

Group therapy of individuals suffering from similar addictions can be very helpful towards addiction treatment. A person with exercise addiction could meet with people who have the same problem, share experiences, and motivate one another towards beating the behavioral disorder.

Overall team spirit among girls.

Enroll in a Rehab Facility

Rehabilitation could be inpatient or outpatient, depending on the severity of fitness addiction, history such as the previous relapse. Professionals would conduct various assessments and suggest alternative activities that can replace the usual workout schedule. The gym addict would also be educated on the physiological reasons why addiction occurs and how to avoid that path. If a co-occurring disorder is detected while treating the primary addiction, then dual diagnosis treatment is conducted.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an intensive program that would enable the person in question to understand triggers, develop the necessary skills, and engage in healing activities.

Staying Fit and Healthy

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Page Sources

  1. Mia Beck Lichtenstein, Mark D. Griffiths, Simone Daugaard Hemmingsen, and René Klinkby Støving, Exercise addiction in adolescents and emerging adults- Validation of a youth version of the exercise addiction inventory. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6035018/
  2. Marilyn Freimuth, Sandy Moniz, Shari R. Kim. Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occuring Disorder, and Phases of Addiction. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210598/
  3. Garber, Carol Ewing, Blissmer, Bryan, Deschenes, Michael R., Franklin, Barry A., Lamonte, Michael J., Lee, Nieman, David C., Swain, David P,. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise. , 2011. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2011/07000/Quantity_and_Quality_of_Exercise_for_Developing.26.aspx
  4. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Exercise addiction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_addiction
  5. Nova Morrisette and Len Kravitz, Exercise Addiction, https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/exerciseaddictionLK.html
  6. Marilyn Freimuth, Sandy Moniz, Shari R. Kim. Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210598/

Published on: January 13th, 2021

Updated on: January 21st, 2021

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed has degrees in Medicine and Surgery and is a graduate of The University of Alexandria. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and healthcare articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.

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