The favorable effects of exercise are well known: physical fitness, improved health, mental and emotional well-being and a reduction in risks of diseases. However, for about 3% of the population exercise becomes pathological, excessive and uncontrollable to the point where the benefits of exercise are outweighed by the negative effects. These people are considered to have an exercise addiction.
People with exercise addiction use exercise as a coping mechanism when they are unable to otherwise handle stress. They exercise in response to stressors, and their workouts frequently go beyond the intended duration and intensity. They dedicate so much time and thought to their exercise that work, relationships, and other normal activities suffer. Even though they can see the negative effects of their excessive exercise, they can’t slow it down, and they experience withdrawal symptoms if they miss a workout.
People with exercise addiction will go to extremes for their obsession with exercise, many even resort to taking steroids.
Steroids sometimes referred to as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), are a group of drugs that include the natural male hormone testosterone and various synthetic versions of it. Steroids are taken for their muscle building and fat-reducing effects.
Steroid use on its own does not have much effect. The user must also take in adequate nutrition, including massive amounts of protein, and perform intensive weight training while taking the drugs to see changes. People with exercise addiction may take steroids for their performance enhancing features.
Why Do People Use Steroids for Exercise?
People take steroids that enable them to gain muscle mass well beyond that which would be possible naturally. Taking steroid drugs also reduces body fat, making the person’s overall body composition leaner.
According to a study of steroid users, there are a few common reasons for using steroids:
- To improve health. Steroid users believe that the steroid use will improve their fitness and therefore their health
- To enhance athletic ability for sports
- For overcoming a negative body image, low self-esteem or negative self-image
- For the desire to look more like the models in magazines
- For attention and respect
The Relationship Between Exercise Addiction and Steroids
Exercise addiction and steroid use have a reciprocal relationship; each can contribute to the development of the other. People with exercise addiction may turn to steroid use as part of their obsession with exercise, and steroid users may become addicted to exercise in their attempt to gain more muscle.
A 2019 study found that about 6% of individuals with exercise addiction also used steroids without medical consultation. Conversely, it appears that most steroid users meet the criteria for exercise addiction.
Steroids are themselves addictive, even in the absence of exercise addiction. Their effects go well beyond muscles. They are also active in the brain. Like addictive drugs such as opioids and stimulants, steroids are psychotropic, meaning that they affect the brain chemistry, including the dopamine reward system. This effect makes them addictive for the same reason that other drugs are addictive.
Steroids are addictive because the user gets caught in a vicious cycle where the results that they are seeing are never enough, and they keep using higher and higher doses for longer than was intended. This cycle is usually accompanied by muscle dysmorphia, a form of body dysmorphic disorder where the individual becomes obsessed with the idea that the body is insufficiently muscular.
A 2006 study polled men who were weightlifters about their steroid abuse. The study found that a common theme among them was that their desire to obtain the “ideal” body became an all-consuming obsession that impeded their social and occupational function.
Dangers of Using Steroids with Exercise Addiction
A European Addiction Research study showed that there is a high association (more than 50%) between abusing steroids and other substances concurrently. The most commonly abused substances were other performance-enhancing drugs and alcohol, to a harmful extent. Cannabis was used to improve sleep, heroin was used to decrease pain, and amphetamine stimulants were used to increase endurance and burn body fat.
Steroids are dangerous drugs that can significantly shorten a person’s life. Of particular concern is their role in promoting premature heart attack and other heart diseases, and their association with premature cancer of the prostate. They are also associated with many common side effects, a few of which are:
- High blood pressure
- Damage to the arteries
- Blood clots in the veins
- Premature male-pattern baldness
- Gynecomastia (breast tissue growth in males)
- Severe cystic acne
- Liver disease
- Aggression and psychosis
Although steroids may be taken in pill form, they are far more effective when injected into the muscle. As such, steroid use is also associated with the same risk of infection as other injection drug use, including HIV and Hepatitis B and C, and bacterial infections of the skin and blood.
Excessive exercise makes the person with an exercise addiction, especially prone to injury, but steroid use greatly increases the risk. The tendons and ligaments that support the muscles can’t grow large enough or fast enough to properly support the unnatural size and rapid growth of the muscles that come from steroid use. As a result, injuries occur.
Steroids suppress the immune system. Therefore, when the steroid user becomes injured the natural inflammatory response is suppressed and the individual may not be aware of the injury. This suppression also impedes healing, making the injury chronic and the person prone to re-injury.
Exercise Addiction and Steroids Treatment
Exercise addiction with or without steroid use has a strong association with mental health and emotional disorders, such as body dysmorphic disorder, appearance anxiety, depression and an especially high risk of suicidal behavior. The use of steroids may underpin other serious problems as well. Exercise addiction and steroid use is usually an indicator of serious underlying emotional and mental health issues that must be addressed to restore the person to good health, happiness, and function.
Key Points: Exercise Addiction and Steroids
There are some key points to remember about exercise addiction and steroid use:
- Exercise is an addiction when it becomes excessive and uncontrollable despite obvious negative consequences
- Exercise addicts use their workouts as a coping mechanism for stress
- Steroid use and exercise addiction frequently occur together
- Steroid use often becomes an addiction of its own
- Steroid use increases the health risks and mental underpinnings of exercise addiction
- Treatment of exercise addiction and steroid abuse must address the underlying mental and emotional causes
If you or a loved one live with a substance use disorder and are ready to seek treatment, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how addiction treatment can work for you.
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