While exercise has many well-known positive effects for the mind and body, is it possible to take exercise too far? For 3% of adults in the United States, exercise crosses the line from healthy activity to addiction.

Exercise addiction is characterized by a dependence on exercise that interferes with social or professional life. A person can experience withdrawals and extreme feelings of guilt, sadness or irritation if a workout is missed. Exercise addiction can also cause someone to continue exercising in spite of illness or injuries. Current information concerning exercise addiction facts and prevalence sheds light on this often overlooked condition and the risks involved.

Risk Factors for Compulsive Exercise

Certain factors can put a person at a higher risk of compulsive exercise. For example, having an addictive personality that seeks highs from substance use or other activities can increase the risk of exercise addiction. Difficulty dealing with stress or negative emotions may also increase an individual’s risk. Pressure from society to have a perfect body may push someone to exercise compulsively to achieve an unrealistic standard.

Beyond internal struggles, external factors can also play a role in exercise addiction. People in sports — and athletes in general —tend to have a higher risk of exercise addiction.

Exercise Addiction in Athletes

Competitive athletes who develop an obsessive passion and dedication to sports are at a much higher risk of exercise addiction. Compared to the general public or leisure exercisers, exercise addiction rates in sports are significantly higher.

The prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is about 3%. Current research reveals that competitive athletes and gym-goers are at a much higher risk of developing exercise addiction:

  • Runners: 25%
  • Marathon runners: 50%
  • Triathletes: 52%
  • Endurance athletes: 14.2%
  • Fitness center attendees: 8.2%

Exercise Addiction and Technology

Research shows rates of exercise addiction to be higher among those who use technology to aid in their related sport or exercise program. Fitness technology in the form of various apps, trackers and social media platforms are used frequently by the general population and athletes.

Trackers and other apps can help people log workouts, track accomplishments and connect to online fitness communities. Problems can arise from this type of technology when a person begins comparing themselves and their goals to others, which can increase stress and pressure and encourage unsafe exercise practices. Overexertion can lead to injury, burnout and the decreased enjoyment of working out.

Exercise Addiction and Related Health Conditions

Exercise addiction is not listed as a condition in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, when the motivation for exercise addiction is evaluated, it is often present alongside other mental health conditions, such as:

Exercise addiction is also more commonly seen in people who exhibit certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, neuroticism and narcissism.

Exercise addiction can cause a person to become overly anxious about missing a workout session. This fear can cause a person to workout and push themselves to the point of illness and injury. The negative effects of exercise addiction may include:

  • Pain and injury from overuse
  • Social impairment
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart problems
  • Irregular periods with possible reproductive issues
  • Extreme weight loss

Statistics on Exercise Addiction Treatment

Treatment for exercise addiction includes regulating the intensity and frequency of exercise and promoting healthy coping strategies. The goal of treatment is to improve social relationships, job maintenance and overall health.

The main challenge in treating exercise addiction involves follow through, with studies showing a low compliance rate. There are limited studies testing therapeutic and medical interventions for exercise addiction. People will likely have the most success with specialists in behavioral therapy and addictions since these professionals are usually experienced in behavior modification. Treating co-occurring mental health conditions, like addiction, is also crucial to long-term recovery.

If you or someone you know lives with exercise addiction and substance abuse, please reach out to The Recovery Village and speak to a representative about treatment options.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.

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