Is Working Out Hurting You? 5 Signs and Treatment for Exercise Addiction

Last Updated: April 10, 2024

Dr. Norman Chazin Reviewed by Dr. Norman Chazin
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There is plenty of scientific research supporting the importance of exercising to improve quality of life and a longer life span.

Working out improves cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), one of the main parameters of good health, and delays the onset of 40 chronic conditions/diseases. While we acknowledge the high benefits of exercise, it’s also imperative to identify when exercise addiction (EA) is present and threatens health.

For a subset of people, like high-performing athletes or people suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), exercise can be a compulsive and/or impulsive activity with adverse outcomes such as bone fractures, increased anxiety, fallout of social relationships and financial debt. Continue reading to learn about this addiction, its signs, causes and potential treatments.

What is Exercise Addiction?

Addiction to exercise is a dysfunctional practice consisting of excessive engagement in physical activity.

This addiction can fall within the limits of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and the impulsive spectrum of behavioral addictions due to the inability to stop despite injury or illness and prioritizing exercise over other responsibilities. Exercise addiction can be classified as primary or secondary, depending on the origin of the disorder:

  • Primary addiction happens in the absence of additional health conditions
  • Secondary addiction is a byproduct of another disorder (eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia)

A secondary exercise addiction can be diagnosed as co-morbidity. While EA research is increasing, it is not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) due to a lack of consistent evidence about its medical indicators.

5 Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Since addiction to exercise has similarities with behavioral addictions, healthcare professionals can use the conventional criteria for behavioral addiction to identify and understand the signs and symptoms of addiction to exercise.

This criterion follows the next elements:

  • Exercise Tolerance

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of physical activity per week, from mild to intense workouts, either with or without weights.

There’s no recommended upper limit, but working out for several hours a day, multiple times a week without any rest can hit an addiction. Sometimes, people need to increase their working out time to achieve the desired feeling. Yet, this can’t be confused with the schedules of high-performing athletes or weightlifting progressions.

  • Withdrawal Symptoms

People with an exercise addiction may experience mood swings, irritability, anxiety or depression when they can’t work out. Individuals may feel euphoric during or after a workout but may also experience mood swings or guilt if they think their workout session was poor.

  • Lack of Control to Stop Working Out

A person may be aware of the dysfunctionality of their workout schedules and attempt to reduce and cut exercise sessions without success.

There is constant thinking about exercise, future workouts, or calories burned calculations in these cases. The inability to take rest days, the fixation with reaching exercise milestones, or the anxiety or guilt of missing an exercise session point to an exercise addiction.

  • Overprioritizing Workout

When someone is addicted to exercise, they frequently prioritize exercise over other important commitments such as work, school, outings or family obligations, leading to neglecting duties and missing deadlines due to a strong need to keep working out or fear of missing a session.

  • Continued Exercise despite Injury or Exhaustion

Overexercising can cause physical discomfort and injury symptoms such as persistent fatigue, weakness, bone fractures or muscle ruptures.

Addiction to exercise can worsen existing injuries, delay recovery or lead to new injuries due to overuse or incorrect form. Those with exercise addiction continue to prioritize exercise over their well-being, often ignoring warning signs from their bodies.

This persistent engagement in physical activity can lead to overtraining syndrome and a decline in quality of life.

Causes of Exercise Addiction

We mentioned how this addiction may fall within the limits of obsessive-compulsive and impulsive behavior.

Yet, addiction to exercise is still not considered as an OCD and more studies are needed to establish a conclusive standpoint. However, we can list similar traits of this addiction with obsessive-compulsive and impulsive behaviors:

A person addicted to exercise can feel compulsive to work out because:

  • Seeks control over body image or weight.
  • Constant preoccupies with upcoming workout sessions.
  • Feels anxious or guilty about missing a workout.
  • Feels distressed when deviating from an established exercise routine.
  • Strives for an idealized body image due to anorexia or bulimia nervosa.

A person addicted to exercise can feel impulsive to work out because:

  • Exercise is used as a coping mechanism to manage stress, anger, or sadness.
  • Seeks immediate reward for endorphin release.
  • Reacts impulsively to external triggers such as seeing others exercising or feeling restless.
  • Engages in exercise without considering safety or physical limitations.

Health Risks of Exercise Addiction

When taken to extremes, exercise can transition from a positive habit to a harmful addiction, leading to several health risks such as:

  • Injuries such as stress fractures, tendonitis or muscle strains
  • Cardiac complications (e.g., arrhythmias, myocardial injury)
  • Weakened immune system, susceptibility to infections and illnesses
  • Disruption of hormone levels, irregular menstrual cycles in women, low testosterone levels in men
  • Inadequate nutrient intake, deficiencies in vitamins, minerals and macronutrients
  • Disordered eating behaviors such as orthorexia or anorexia nervosa, severe nutritional imbalances
  • Anxiety, depression, loneliness or obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, difficulties in falling or staying asleep

Exercise Addiction Recovery − Treatment and Key Takeaways

Working out is still one of the most important ways to maintain physical and mental health. But when exercise becomes a dysfunctional habit, it’s time to assess its causes for effective treatment and recovery.

Healthcare professionals must evaluate addiction stages and potential dual diagnoses or co-occurring disorders such as eating disorders (e.g., anorexia and bulimia nervosa) and/or substance abuse.

A realistic treatment for addiction to exercise often includes a blend of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These therapies simultaneously address core psychological aspects and offer patients practical skills to identify and avoid triggers. Self-awareness and professional support are essential to prevent relapse and keep a balanced lifestyle.

People Also Ask

Is exercise addiction a mental disorder?

No, addiction to exercise is not an official mental or behavioral disorder reflected in diagnostic manuals like the DSM-5. However, it shares similarities with other addictions and can have significant psychological and physical consequences.

What are the risks of exercise addiction?

Risks include physical injury, exhaustion, disrupted social relationships, neglect of obligations and mental health issues like anxiety or depression. It may also lead to overtraining syndrome and increased susceptibility to illness.

How do I get over my obsession with exercise?

Gradually reduce exercise intensity, diversify activities, seek social support and prioritize rest. If needed, consult a therapist specializing in behavioral addictions. Establish a balanced routine focusing on overall well-being rather than excessive exercise.

Man doing triceps dips exercise.

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Page Sources

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Retrieved on April 10, 2024.

Published on: January 13th, 2021

Updated on: April 10th, 2024

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