Compared to, say, heroin or tequila, exercise seems to be a pretty tame addiction. It even seems like it would be a “healthy” obsession. But in fact, like any compulsive/repetitive behavioral disorder (others include sex, gambling, pornography and video games) exercise addiction can lead to very real harm. An estimated 0.3 percent of the U.S. population suffers from exercise addiction.
Unlike gambling and video game addiction, it's a lot harder for friends and family to spot the problem. Regular and rigorous physical activity is seen perceived as both healthy and desirable, and psychologists agree that there is a fine line between competitive training and exercise addiction.
Exercise addiction can be its own, primary, disorder, or it can be a secondary disorder used to control and manipulate weight among people already suffering from an eating disorder. Approximately 39 to 48 percent of people suffering with anorexia, bulimia or another eating disorder also suffer from secondary exercise addiction. Men are more likely to suffer from exercise addiction as a primary disorder, whereas women are more prone when it is a secondary disorder.
Over-training may be a precursor and component to exercise addiction, and it has a number of both physical and mental symptoms:
- Decreased performance
- Loss of coordination
- Prolonged recovery
- Elevated morning heart rate
- Elevated resting blood pressure
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle soreness/tenderness
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Decreased ability to ward off infection
- Increased incidence of musculoskeletal injuries
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Difficulty concentrating
- Emotional sensitivity
- Reduced self-esteem
Since any or even most of the symptoms above can be found in even the healthiest among us, how can you distinguish between a healthy “gym rat” and someone with an exercise addiction? The answer is found in the motivation behind the exercise.
An exercise addict cannot skip even a single workout without experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as irritability or anxiety. Exercise often interferes with the addict's work/school obligations, social life, and personal relationships. The exercise addict will even place himself at risk of great personal distress by exercising with an injury or while otherwise sick or incapacitated.
Training for “extreme” sports events such as triathlons or marathons will not make you more prone to exercise addiction, but addicts will often adopt these activities to mask their addictive behavior. The most common age for developing exercise addiction is between 18 and 24, and addicts may take advantage of that formative period in their lives to choose a career in the fitness industry as a “beard.”
While there’s no formal method for treating addiction, experts have found cognitive and behavioral therapies (alone or in combination) to be effective.