Are you addicted to exercise?

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Exercise is great for the mind, body and soul, right? But what happens when it starts to take over your life?

PT Marisa Branscombe ponders the dangerous effects of too much exercise

Exercise is generally accepted as a positive behaviour associated with enhanced physical and psychological wellbeing. But is it possible to do too much exercise? So much that it takes over your life?

This may sound strange, but lately I’ve come across several women who seem to be controlled by eating and exercise. I have to admit, for a few years I was in that headspace too and every now and then I have to keep myself in check. There really is a fine line between exercising enough and becoming obsessed about it. Read on to find out how exercise addiction may be affecting you or someone you know.

Exercise addiction: positive vs. negative

“Addiction occurs when adaptive changes in the brain cause symptoms of tolerance, sensitisation, dependence and withdrawal,” (Leuenberger, 2006).

Positive Addiction, written by William Glaser (1976), first addressed positive and negative addiction to exercise. He refers to positive addiction as “involving a love of the activity that is characterised by controllability, an ability to integrate exercise into everyday activities, and an ability to miss exercisesessions when it is necessary”. People with a positive dependence schedule exercise carefully around other aspects of their life, so their exercise schedule is not detrimental to their wellbeing in these areas. They feel increased feelings of control, competence, physical and psychological wellbeing. Negative addiction to exercise, on the other hand, “involves a compulsive desire or need to exercise that overrides a person’s considerations about their health, relationships and career”. When these people have to miss an exercise session they experience feelings of loss, guilt, physical and psychological discomfort. Large amounts of time are dedicated to training, leading to many ‘negative addicts’ giving up other important aspects of their life.

Health risks of too much exercise

Exercise, like anything, can be carried too far. Overexercising stresses the body to the point of weakening the immune system, making people more prone to illness. Pushing yourself beyond your limits can lead to sore muscles, loss of appetite, headaches and trouble sleeping. More serious effects include joint pain and injuries, anaemia, weakening of the bones and the hormonal cycle shutting down (Cline, 2007).

Yes, exercise is good for you, but when it reaches the point of excess it can indeed make you sick. A study of Harvard Alumni by Stanford University’s Ralph Paffenbarger found death rates were lower for men who were involved in regular physical activity. But then death rates began to go up in those who burnt more than 3000 calories per week. His 10-year study also found that mood disturbances such as tension, depression, anger, confusion and anxiety were found to rise significantly as training loads increased.

Dr Kenneth Cooper, author of Aerobics, believes excessive exercise also produces unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals that cause harm to the body. These have been linked to health problems such as premature ageing, heart disease and cancer.

Why the addiction?

Psychological and physiological factors

There is still a great debate happening on the ‘why’ of exercise addiction. Some believe it’s associated with certain personality traits, including obsessive compulsive disorder, high-pain tolerance, high self-imposed expectations and narcissism.

Others propose it may be a result of low self-esteem, where exercise is used to improve this, or that endorphins released in the body during exercise, lead to a psychological state called ‘runners high’, which creates a relaxed state of being that people thrive to achieve over and over again. Some also say there are physiological causes, where the exerciser relies on exercise to increase their arousal to an optimal level.
Participants in sports that focus on body size and shape, such as dance, figure skating, ballet, gymnastics, distance running, body building, wrestling and boxing may be at higher risk.

Are you at risk?

Does all of this sound a little too familiar? Or perhaps alarm bells are ringing around one of your friends or family members? Well here are some of the typical symptoms of someone who is letting exercise take over their life:

  • Withdrawal

They will experience anxiety, fatigue and other similar symptoms if they don’t exercise. Or will have to exercise to relieve these.

  • Intention effects

The amount of exercise or length of exercise sessions is longer than originally intended.

  • Loss of control

A persistent desire to train or make unsuccessful attempts to reduce the amount of exercise they do.

  • Time

Large amounts of time are spent exercising and conflict with other areas of their life.

  • Continuance

Will continue to exercise even with persistent physical or psychological issues that are made worse from exercising, such as a recurring injury.

Other warnings signs are a fixation on weight loss, whereby they will talk about exercising to burn off a meal or treat. Compulsive exercisers will also try to lose weight in order to improve their exercise performance.  They often exercise alone and avoid interaction and exercise assessments, and will usually have a rigid routine.

However, as Amy Gleason, senior nutritionist from the McLean Hospital in the United States says, “unhealthy uses of exercise are not necessarily obvious. Exercisers won’t complain or bring their potential problems to anyone’s attention. Asking why a person is training or what their goals are is a great way to find out more.”

If you still feel like you can’t break the chains of obsessive exercise, consider talking to an expert, who can help you let go of it gradually.  A great book to check out is Appearance Obsession: Learning to Love the way you look, by Joni E. Johnston. This contains quizzes than can help you assess whether your exercise habit is becoming an unhealthy one. It also offers helpful suggestions, in addition to the ones I have given you.

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