When Does Enthusiasm For Exercise Become An Addiction?

At what point does a love of the gym become a sign that you're overdoing it for the wrong reasons...

Are You Addicted To Exercise

by Georgia Aspinall |
Published on

Whether you’re sitting at home watching the latest TV programme about fad diets show, standing on a train next to an advert for the weight loss supplements, or walking around the office overhearing conversations about someone’s morning run, it’s impossible to escape the association of exercise with weight loss.

For many of us, this is something we glaze over, not quite taking in just how much fitness-related information we’re bombarded with every day. For some of us, however, these conversations are impossible to ignore, and in fact, they’re extremely triggering.

We live in an exercise positive society. No matter what you’re doing, any exercise is seen as good exercise. Our physical health has topped our priorities for a long time, and our mental health has suffered for it. It’s this very focus, on our physical health, that keeps us all blissfully unaware that actually, for many young women, exercise isn’t an exclusively positive topic for discussion. For women with exercise addiction, it is actually detrimental to their mental health.

Exercise addiction is a behavioural addiction, characterized as a compulsive need to exercise despite negative consequences. People with exercise addiction may work out for longer than they intend, at higher and higher intensities, despite injuries or it disrupting other plans. They could be chasing the high you get from working out, an endorphin rush if you will, or simply be avoiding dealing with negative emotions. Essentially, if they do not exercise they will experience extreme withdrawal effects, from anxiety and depression to difficulty in focusing or getting their work done.

While current studies state that only 3% of regular gym-goers are thought to experience addiction to exercise, it remains largely unstudied. As the body of research around addiction continues to grow, it’s clear that this is a complex, underreported issue. Intertwining with otherdisorders around eating and body image, exercise addiction as a stand-alone issue can often go unnoticed as it is seen as a by-product of other disorders. There is also the glaringly obvious fact that because exercise in general is so celebrated within our society, many sufferers will be overlooked as they seem to be engaging in a healthy activity.

This was certainly the case for Becky, 24, who has been in recovery from exercise addiction for two years. She would attend classes at her local gym every day in order to escape her stressful job and get an endorphin rush, however no one ever questioned how excessive her exercise was becoming.

‘People at the gym would even say “wow you’ve got such good dedication”,’ she tells me, ‘it was never something that professionals or PT’s would ever put me off from going, quite the opposite, they thought it was a good thing,’

For Becky, her addiction was largely to the feeling she got from working out, as well as providing stress relief from her day job. Having started exercising to lose weight, she never really enjoyed it until she began attending fitness classes with a focus on cardio. ‘I got a kick out of the endorphins,’ she admits, ‘so then if I couldn’t get that feeling after work then I just felt flat. I just had to go, just to experience the endorphins.’

Constantly turning down social events, it wasn’t until she began to raise eyebrows about how often she chose the gym over work drinks and dinner with friends that she realised she had a problem. However, much like other women I spoke to, she didn’t benefit from professional help.

‘I dealt with it on my own,’ she states, introducing more balance into her life and switching to a less stressful job at the Counselling Directory, which helps connect those with mental health issues with counsellors, ‘in hindsight I would’ve definitely benefited from having counselling, I think it would’ve helped me get out of that spiral a lot sooner and realise there’s healthier ways to process how your feeling’.

While there is the option of counselling for exercise addiction, the lack of awareness around the disorder can make people feel isolated in their unhealthy behaviours and prevent them from seeking help. Despite being open about her struggles with exercise addiction, Becky herself still deals with friends asking why she didn’t attend a certain gym class with them, seemingly unaware that they’re contributing to the guilt she has to combat every day in her continuing effort to maintain a healthy relationship with exercise.

Sophie, 23, has experienced a similar reaction. Her addiction to exercise began when she was 17, and it has taken six years to fully recover. Even when she was at her worst, doing up to seven HIIT workouts a day, having lost around 15 kilos, her family didn’t see it as a real addiction.

‘They would just give me suggestions for being more balanced,’ she tells me, ‘I don’t think they saw it as a real problem, they didn’t see it as an addiction or an illness that would need treatment. I don’t think they took it seriously enough.’

In a similar vein to Becky, Sophie began exercising in an attempt to become fitter, however quickly became obsessed with HIIT workouts and began to exhibit unhealthy behaviours. She would only exercise in private because she felt unattractive at the gym and wanted to hide how much she was working out from the people close to her. Feeling an obligation to keep exercising, she realised she had a problem when she was continuing despite exhaustion.

‘There was one time in the middle of my exercise routine, I was really exhausted and I also hadn’t been eating properly, and I just started crying while still exercising,’ she explains, ‘it sounds so silly but I felt like I had to keep doing it even though I didn’t want to, so I was just so emotional at the same time’

READ MORE: The Adaptogen Ingredients You Need To Look Out For


Debrief Adaptogens 10 Ingredients You Need To Look Out For

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Say 'Om' as Ashwagandha is commonly used in Ayurvedic healing as a powerful calming agent to naturally lower cortisol, reduce fatigue, balance thyroid hormones and regulate immune function.

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While Sophie did seek help from her GP, she turned down treatment because in her unhealthy state of mind, she feared being made to gain weight or stop exercising. It has since taken her six years to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, beginning by scaling it down bit by bit every day and introducing less isolated forms of exercise like team sports.

However still now, in this era of pro-exercise-no-matter-what, she finds it difficult not to indulge in the fitness phenomenon. ‘The popularity of things like Fitbit has been difficult because it’s become so common for people to track their steps now,’ she says, ‘the fact that they’re so common, I’ve thought about getting one and I have to remind myself that it’s not a good idea for some people to be tracking that kind of thing and to be thinking about it so much.’

In particular, Sophie finds the barrage of fitness posts on social media quite triggering. As we all rush to post our latest gym selfie, competing in who can contort themselves the most to find the best angle, social media is amass with ‘look how in shape I am’. For those with exercise addiction, this only induces guilt, reinforcing their need to get to the gym. And it’s not just exercise addicts who will be triggered by these posts, it’s anyone with body-image issues, essentially the majority of women.

With it being so difficult to avoid adverts and social media posts about exercise and food, she only asks that people are more considerate about warning their followers before posting. ‘I don’t think people should assume that everyone is comfortable reading things about exercise,’ she explains, ‘it’s always assumed that everyone wants to lose weight, or is interested in talking about weight. I don’t think people understand that it’s not a universal topic everyone is comfortable discussing’.

It’s something physical activity expert, Heather Hausenblas, explores in her book, The Truth About Exercise Addiction, which she co-authored with recovering exercise addict Katherine Schreiber. While we may only hear about the positives of exercise online, it’s imperative to understand that a person who is engaging in seemingly healthy behaviour could actually be suffering with exercise addiction under the surface.

Heather explains that the issue should not be overlooked simply because a person looks healthy on the outside. In fact, the person you see at the gym every day could be experiencing a range of negative physiological effects. It’s theses psychological effects that distinguish a healthy relationship with exercise from an unhealthy one. Heather maintains that you can still go to the gym every day and be healthy, as long as it’s not your only priority.

‘It’s not so much the amount of time, or that someone is exercising every day, it’s the other aspects that go alongside it, where it becomes all-consuming and the focus of someone’s life,’ she explains, ‘and if they’re not able to exercise, they experience anxiety and depression or have a difficult time focusing.’

She gives me an example of a woman she interviewed, whom having already ran a marathon, carried on running because she felt like she hadn’t exercised enough. ‘It’s this type of excessive, compulsive need,’ she continues, ‘people who engage in marathons, even ultra-marathons, are by no means exercise addicted, so it’s important to consider all aspects’

Heather will ask certain questions when assessing whether someone is addicted or not, including ‘do they go gym intending to do one class and then end up doing two or three? Are they giving up social or occupational responsibilities so that they can get their exercise in? Are they continuing to exercise despite injury?’. For her, exercising on an injury is a tell-tale sign, as someone who has a healthy relationship with exercise can take time off to heal, whereas someone whose addicted will ‘exercise through the pain’.

It’s this type of irrational decision-making around exercise that shows signs of addiction, and it’s something Becky believes gym professionals should be watching out for.

‘At the end of the day everyone that goes to the gym is a customer and they have a duty of care,’ she says, ‘whether it’s in their physical health or mental health, so I think there should definitely be stronger messaging around that in gyms.’

At a time when many gyms are enticing clients with ‘killer cardio’ classes and increasingly intense marketing ploys, it’s unlikely that they will start embracing mental health messaging. However, we can look out for signs of obsessive behaviour in ourselves and others. According to Heather, it’s essential to practice moderation and balance in your exercise routine.

‘Inherently exercise is a good thing and if people are exercising every day that is by no means bad,’ she says, highlighting that it has significant mental health benefits from being less prone to anxiety and depression to improving your mood and energy levels, however ‘it’s a matter of keeping it within a safe amount’ and looking out for the warning signs, she says.

Increasingly, it’s clear that the more we acknowledge and discuss exercise addiction, the more those of us with potentially problematic relationships to exercise, and all of us in general, will be aware that the behaviours we’re exhibiting aren’t necessarily as healthy as we might like to think. And as the fitness world continues to grow online, it’s becoming more imperative than ever that we talk about the dark side of exercise – the bit where you feel guilty for missing a class or skip a meal to make up for the cardio you didn’t do.

If you are experiencing health problems related to exercise or over exercise, see your GP immediately.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder contact Beat's helpline for support on 0808 801 0677

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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