Alcohol is a frequently used substance in the United States. Approximately 86 percent of people 18 years or older say they have used alcohol at some time in their lives. Alcohol use disorder is when a person has difficulty stopping alcohol use despite negative consequences.

Exercise addiction is a behavioral health condition in which a person is preoccupied with fitness and exercise to an unhealthy degree that harm’s their life and well-being. According to a 2011 article which analyzed several small studies with mostly college-age people, the prevalence of exercise addiction was estimated to be around 3 to 5 percent in the American population.

At this time, exercise addiction is not recognized as an official psychiatric diagnosis, so there are no specific criteria to diagnose a person with exercise addiction. Exercise is usually considered a positive behavior, so it can be difficult to assess whether a person is struggling with exercise addiction. In general, if the exercise obsession is affecting a person’s relationships, work performance or other aspects of their life, it may actually become an unhealthy tendency.

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Exercise

Sometimes people who are addicted to substances like alcohol may become addicted to other substances or activities once they have recovered from their substance addiction. Also, it is not uncommon for a person to have other addictive behaviors during active substance addiction.

Many addictive behaviors coexist with one another. For example, a 2011 study noted that alcohol use disorder co-occurs with cigarette and other drug use disorders in 30% to 60% of people.

Other addictive behaviors, like exercise, gambling, sex, and shopping addictions can also co-occur with substance use disorders. These conditions, along with exercise addiction, are typically considered process addictions.

Researchers have not thoroughly examined the link between alcohol use and exercise addiction with well-controlled studies or clinical trials, probably because there are no official diagnostic criteria for exercise addiction, and also because it may be hard to identify enough people who have both conditions. This area of study is still speculative at best, but both exercise addiction and alcohol use can potentially cause certain problems that may be increased when they coexist in one person.

Dangers of Alcohol and Exercise

Alcohol use is associated with many negative health consequences, and alcoholism can be very difficult to overcome, even when it is the only behavioral health problem a person faces. If a person also has another ongoing addictive process, the health dangers are increased and it may be even more difficult to overcome the habits.

There have not been controlled studies about specific dangers of alcohol use and exercise addiction, and how they affect the body, but there are some considerations to keep in mind.

Damage From Alcohol Use

Alcohol use is known to cause damage to the heart and cardiovascular system, especially with long-term use or use of a large amount of alcohol in a short timeframe. Some of these problems include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened heart muscle
  • Decrease in the heart’s ability to pump blood properly

Although exercise is usually good for cardiovascular health, if the heart is already damaged by alcohol, intense or excessive exercise may stress the heart too much. This can lead to further heart damage and dangerous consequences. For people with alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, it’s important to discuss appropriate exercise programs with a professional and to address symptoms of exercise addiction if they arise.

Alcohol and Exercise: Blood Sugar Changes

Alcohol consumption can also cause a drop in blood sugar. Low blood sugar can cause lightheadedness, fainting and can be life-threatening in severe cases. Exercise also causes blood sugar to decrease, as the body is using the sugar contained within the blood to fuel muscle activity.

If a person is exercising while using alcohol, it is possible that blood sugar could decrease to a dangerous degree. This fact is especially important to know if a person has diabetes since this adds additional complexity to how the body handles blood sugar. Exercising with diabetes further underlines the importance of discussing exercise regimens and alcohol use with a provider who can help determine an appropriate program, and how to identify and handle cases of low blood sugar.

Another potential danger associated with alcohol addiction is associated with alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include seizures, headaches, vomiting, and anxiety. Withdrawal from alcohol can even be fatal in some cases. It would likely be very difficult for someone experiencing alcohol withdrawal to exercise because of the discomfort associated with withdrawal. It is important to know that exercising will not prevent withdrawal symptoms from occurring and that medical treatment is often necessary.

Similarities Between Alcohol and Exercise Addiction

Likely the most significant similarity between alcohol use disorders and exercise addiction is that they are both addictions, and all addictions affect the brain in similar ways.

Any type of addiction, whether to a particular substance or a certain behavior, is characterized by activation of the brain’s reward system so that a person continues to seek that reward despite negative consequences.

It is thought that the brain chemical dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is likely involved in this process of continual reward and reinforcement of the behavior. People with addiction issues often do not realize that they have a problem, or that their addiction also affects the lives of people around them.

Other ways that alcohol addiction and exercise addiction are similar includes:

  • Compulsive behaviors (either to drink or to exercise)
  • Shame, guilt or fear surrounding the addiction
  • Continuing to drink or exercise despite negative outcomes
  • Avoiding responsibilities to drink or to exercise

Many individual factors influence whether a person becomes addicted to a substance like alcohol or behavior like exercise, including genetics, personality, environment, and education, among many others. Addiction can cause a person to feel shame or guilt, since they may feel incapable of recovery from such a powerful force. However, with professional assistance and appropriate treatment programs, recovery from any type of addiction is possible.

Alcohol and Exercise Addiction Statistics

No well-controlled studies have examined the link between alcohol use and exercise addiction, so exercise addiction statistics and numbers of people struggling with these co-occurring disorders are largely unknown.

Although much more research is necessary, a 2011 study estimates that about 15% of people who struggle with addiction to exercise are also addicted to alcohol, smoking or other drugs.

The same study notes that in people who struggle with alcohol addictions, an estimated 20% rate of co-occurrence with exercise addiction exists. The two conditions can certainly overlap with each other, but more research is needed to know how frequently this overlap occurs.

Alcohol and Exercise Addiction Treatment

Appropriate treatment for alcohol use disorder is very important, especially if other psychological conditions exist, such as exercise addiction. Some people may recover from alcohol addiction only to become addicted to exercise or other behaviors. Professional treatment can help provide healthy coping mechanisms during recovery and minimize the chance of replacing one addiction with another.

If someone is struggling with coexisting alcohol problems and exercise addiction, seeking treatment in a well-rounded program that includes counseling, behavioral therapy, medical management, and group therapy can be beneficial and decrease the chances of relapse. Every individual has their own experiences and needs, and a customized program will provide a better chance of success in recovery.

Key Points: Alcohol and Exercise Addiction

Important takeaways about alcohol and exercise addiction include:

  • Alcohol use disorder can often overlap with behavioral disorders like exercise addiction
  • Alcohol use has detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system, which may be even more dangerous if a person is exercising excessively
  • Both alcohol use and exercise can cause decreases in blood sugar, which can be life-threatening in some cases
  • Exact statistics are unknown, but it is estimated there could be about 15% to 20% overlap in coexisting alcohol and exercise addiction
  • Well-rounded addiction treatment can address multiple addictions and behavioral health issues
  • It is important to discuss both alcohol use and exercise habits with a professional, especially if there is a concern that either one is affecting one’s life negatively
  • Recovery from alcohol and exercise addiction is possible, and appropriate therapy is available

If you struggle with an alcohol use disorder and any co-occurring mental health conditions, The Recovery Village® can help. We can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery from alcohol addiction. Connect with our team today to learn more.