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Ask the Professor

Are You Addicted to Exercise?

Considering that most people could stand to be more active, the idea of an exercise addiction may seem odd. Not only is it possible, but it also can be dangerous. 

Ask the Professor: “Am I addicted to exercise?”

“Exercise addition is often difficult to recognize because on the surface, it looks like a dedication to your goals,” says Wendy Batts, MS, LMT, NASM-CPT, PES, CES, assistant professor at California University of Pennsylvania. “But these goals can often be unrealistic and make us believe we need to work harder.”

Dying to Be Fit

If you’ve ever experienced a “runner’s high,” you understand how calm and relaxed exercise can make you feel, and indeed distance running can be a welcome escape from life’s mental and emotional stressors. But if you begin to feel anxious, irritable or depressed when you miss a workout and/or regularly feel the need to exercise for longer and longer durations, you could be experiencing a primary exercise addiction. This compulsion for exercise is fueled by a need for that psychological relief as well as the endorphin and dopamine release that makes you feel calm and relaxed — a sense of happiness that happens only when you exercise, Batts adds.

A secondary exercise addiction is often related to body image, and rather than being an escape from stress, it becomes a “punishment” for eating certain foods and is often accompanied by disordered eating. For example, someone might feel compelled to do additional cardio as punishment for eating a cookie at lunch. “Exercise should be more than just a vehicle to lose weight or burn more calories,” Batts reminds. “It should enhance all aspects of life [and well-being].”

With both primary and secondary addictions, overtraining is almost a guarantee because without adequate rest and recovery, the body will eventually break down and incur an injury. Well-planned schedules function off the principles of progressive overload and variation and always include intentional rest days and deload weeks for optimal recovery.

Life in Balance

Residential programs and individual or group counseling can help kick-start the recovery process and create a new identity around exercise. If you believe you might be at risk for developing an exercise addiction, try these strategies to regain balance.

  1. Take a break. Schedule a rest day or even a rest week, bearing in mind that recovery is just as important for your body as the stress of exercise. Do nothing more challenging than foam rolling, gentle stretching or easy, fun activities like family walks or bike rides.
  2. Call in a sub. Implement a few stress-busting strategies that have nothing to do with exercise such as journaling, meditation, music or art. Find something that helps you get out of your head and into the moment, just like exercise does.
  3. Hire a coach. A trainer, nutritionist, therapist or life coach can each give you different insights and help you develop health-promoting habits. Seek out certified professionals and be open to the journey of self-discovery.

Hope and Help

Is exercise hurting rather than helping you? If you answer yes to several of these questions, you may need to shift your perspective:

  • Do you feel anxious, upset or depressed when you miss a workout?
  • Do you always feel the need to do more exercise than you had planned to do?
  • Do you feel as if you don’t push yourself hard enough?
  • Do you think you should do more reps or add in another workout to make up for something you ate?
  • Do you regularly give up fun things like being with friends and family to go to the gym?
  • Have you ever pushed through a painful injury rather than taking a day off?