Everyone knows that exercise is typically healthy. But can exercise be unhealthy? Find out what constitutes unhealthy exercise and learn about the myths surrounding exercise addiction.

With new fitness trends developing every month, it can be hard to identify when exercise has gone beyond a healthy habit to an unhealthy addiction. Exercise addiction is seen in about 3% of the United States’s adult population. There are certain behaviors associated with addiction that are common in exercise addiction as well, such as experiencing withdrawals or feelings of guilt if an exercise session is missed. Knowing the facts concerning exercise addiction can help an individual identify if they may have a problem.

Several exercise addiction myths may add to the confusion surrounding healthy and unhealthy exercise. Learning the facts about exercise addiction can help dispel any myths.

Myth 1: Compulsive exercise is a positive addiction.

Fact: Compulsive exercise is an addiction that has negative effects just like other addictions.

The addiction to exercise was identified as far back as the 1970s, especially about running. Running was described as a positive addiction because of the joy or pleasure that came from it. It wasn’t until the 80s that addiction to exercise was seen to have negative effects as well. Today, a growing body of research has shown that extreme cases of exercise, leisure or sports, can have harmful effects on the body and the person. In addition, to exercise addiction health problems, exercise addiction can affect an individual’s personal life and relationships.

Going to the gym faithfully or exercising regularly does not constitute having an exercise addiction. Regular exercise is something encouraged by health professionals. However, exercise can begin to cross the line when a person is dependent upon it for emotional reasons. If a session is missed and the person feels stressed, irritated, sad or has feelings of extreme guilt, they could have an addiction to exercise. Exercising with known injuries or when sick can be a sign of an addiction. If exercise affects the social aspects of a person’s life, this too can be a sign of an addiction to exercise.

Myth 2: Exercise addiction is mainly about weight loss.

Fact: Exercise addiction can stem from negative emotions and stress unrelated to weight.

Exercise is rightfully associated with health and weight loss. Even moderate amounts of exercise can improve one’s physical and emotional well being. Studies have shown that exercising lowers high blood pressure, improves digestion and helps with depressive symptoms. However, exercise addiction is an extreme form of exercise that can cause unhealthy weight loss and promote unbalanced self-views. Exercise addiction can be a reflection of unhealthy coping mechanisms and an outward manifestation of a more serious mental health condition.

Risk factors for exercise addiction could include having a strong desire for a high, as seen with addictive personality types. Some people may seek an outlet to handle stress and negative emotions and turn to exercise as the answer. Unrealistic standards set by commercialism may push some people to compulsively exercise. Certain mental health conditions can increase the risk for having an exercise addiction, such as: 

  • Anorexia or bulimia, seen in 39% to 48% of compulsive exercisers
  • Muscle dysmorphia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism, narcissism, and neuroticism

It is important to understand the underlying motivation for exercise addiction to be able to treat it effectively.

Myth 3: Exercising on an empty stomach burns more fat.

Fact: A small pre-exercise snack can boost your energy for a more intense workout.

Many fitness gurus and bloggers advocate exercising on an empty stomach. This recommendation is something that works for them as people who are already in good shape and maintain a high-quality diet. There are even studies concerning fasting, but all were tightly controlled with assistance from nutritionists. For an average person who may have other health issues, exercising on an empty stomach may pose a problem.

Nutritional deficits could occur in addition to complications from low blood sugar, such as light-headedness. Feeling tired from low blood sugar could mean that your workout won’t be as intense as it could have been if you had a pre-workout snack. 

While some studies document weight loss from skipping breakfast or dinner, this may not be a good or long-term option for most people. Fasting has the potential to backfire and cause overeating in some people. Extremes in diet do not have the best success rates in general. 

The best option for most people is to maintain balance with diet and exercise and to find a plan that works best for their individual needs. If a particular workout session requires extra energy, having a small snack pre-workout can increase the fat-burning potential and lower the risk of negative side effects from low blood sugar.

Myth 4: There’s nothing wrong with overexercising.

Fact: Overexercising increases the risk of bodily harm.

Normal amounts of exercise, even strenuous high-intensity exercises can cause you to feel sore. This feeling of soreness is expected and natural. The sensation happens when the body is pushed and muscles are shortened and lengthened in ways they aren’t used to. When the body is not yet adapted to such movements, the muscles will experience micro-tears that feel like sore, achy pain the next day. This soreness can last from 12 to 72 hours. When your body gets used to those movements the soreness decreases.

There are definite negative effects involved with overexercising, with results much more serious than soreness. After any strenuous workout, rest is required for muscles to heal properly and strengthen. Lactic acid can build up in your bloodstream during strenuous exercise as your body uses oxygen to break down glucose. If you have too much lactic acid build-up, you could experience nausea, weakness, cramps, and exhaustion. These effects represent your body giving you warning signs to stop. Any extreme exertion over a long time can cause real damage to the heart and possibly increase the risk of heart disease.

Myth 5: There’s no such thing as unhealthy exercise.

Fact: Exercise taken too far is unhealthy and dangerous.

Regular exercise is great for one’s health. Nearly 80% of the United States adult population doesn’t meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. With so many types of exercise to choose from, it seems there is an exercise for everyone. 

So, how do you know if you’ve crossed the line from healthy to unhealthy? When does exercise go from beneficial to dangerous? Consider the physical, emotional and social tolls unhealthy exercise habits can have:

  • Injury: Overuse injuries and repeated injuries are common.
  • Pain: In one study, individuals with exercise addiction reported a higher incidence of exercising in spite of pain and discomfort when compared to those not addicted to exercise.
  • Anxiety and Depression: Anxiety can be felt from missing exercise. Competitiveness and performance pressure can add to feelings of depression in professional athletes.
  • Impaired social life: Compulsive exercisers rate exercise as a top priority above all else in life. This belief can lead to conflict in family and social circles.

In one study from China, students with exercise addiction were evaluated psychologically and found to have a higher rate of low self-satisfaction, negative moods, and energy with altered social behavior. Typically, exercise can boost one’s mood, energy levels and satisfaction with oneself. With overexercise, the effects can be the opposite.

Myth 6: No pain, no gain.

Fact: Injuries from exercise can cause setbacks and permanent damage.

One key identifying factor for exercise addiction is exercising in spite of an injury. Most people who are active in sports, or fitness in general, will experience some injury in their lifetime. Recovery normally requires a hiatus from the game or the exercise to recuperate and heal. Some injuries require several weeks of non-activity to heal. 

Individuals with exercise addiction will ignore the pain of an injury to continue their workouts. They will overlook the key issues at stake to maintain their exercise regimen. This behavior is detrimental to their health. A minor injury can quickly become a major issue for these individuals.

People struggling with exercise addiction will also work out in spite of illness. Unusually difficult workouts and for longer periods characterize the exercise addict. To them, exercise is what keeps them feeling sane and structured in life. Their addiction is the reason they will ignore the body’s normal cues to rest and take a break. When other factors in their life seem too difficult to handle, exercise is seen as a way of taking control of their life. This behavior is where the addiction takes control and interferes with their ability to balance emotions properly and effectively.

Myth 7: The longer you exercise the better.

Fact: Regular exercise is more important than how long each session is.

Is a long workout a good workout? According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for America, provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services, consistent and regular exercise is the key to good health. This belief doesn’t mean that the exercise session must be intense or overly long. It can simply involve choosing to take a walk instead of sitting on the couch. The recommended physical activity for adults is 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week, like brisk walking. The recommendation also includes at least two days that involve a muscle-strengthening activity like push-ups or lifting weights.

The health benefits from regular, balanced physical activity are immense. Research shows a strong correlation between physical activity and a lowered risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and many other chronic diseases. Even brief exercises throughout the day can add up to health benefits. 

Exercise is necessary to maintain good health, but when it interferes with social aspects of life or puts your physical health at risk, it’s time to stop and reflect on the true motivation for exercising. 

If you find it difficult to manage your emotions or the stresses of life and you feel you may be addicted to exercise in addition to drugs or alcohol, contact us at The Recovery Village. Call to speak with a representative to learn how addiction treatment can help you. Take the first step toward a healthier future by calling today.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Dr. Karen Vieira
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Karen Vieira, PhD
Dr. Karen Vieira has a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Florida College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Read more

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.