Exercise Addition- When Is It Too Much Of A Good Thing
Exercise has been often referred to as a the ultimate drug and given that physical activity can do everything from increasing your strength to improving body composition and reducing the risk of metabolically related disease- it is a well-deserved title. With the growing global number of people over their ideal body weight and the increased inactivity that modern life imposes upon us, the call to exercise has been one that every major health and fitness related body has recommended time and time again. In a sense, exercise is indeed very much like a drug that every doctor is keen to prescribe. A drug that comes seemingly without adverse side effects, but the reality is that exercise does indeed have its negative side- and that negative side is the possibility of addiction.
Exercise is a pleasurable activity that in its addicted form occurs without any consideration for the negative consequences it can inflict. While one might be tempted to assume that any devoted or accomplished athlete must suffer from some form of exercise addiction, a comprehensive overview of what addiction is and how it relates to physical activity highlights that this isn’t always the case. Some athletes and enthusiasts who regularly engage in intense physical exercise of any kind- be it weight training, yoga, bodybuilding, running, aerobics, athletics or martial arts training, may suffer from exercise addiction. However everyone who trains at an advanced level is not an exercise addict as addiction has little to do with how much or how intensely you exercise. In this article we will take a look at the phases of exercise addiction that identify its occurrence while clearly distinguishing healthy exercise patterns from negative and addictive behaviors.
Exercise Addiction: Defining What Addiction Is & What It Isn’t
While the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list exercise addiction as a separate disorder- it’s upcoming fifth edition does lay down criteria for what are known as behavioral addictions.) Exercise addition falls within the subset of behavioral additions and is quite distinct from healthy exercise habits. In order for a behavior to be classified as an addiction the following basic criteria must exist:
Withdrawal Symptoms: When the activity is stopped the individual becomes anxious, irritable, restless and has difficulty sleeping. 
Lack of Self Control: The individual has difficulty reducing the intensity or frequency of exercise or is unable to stop exercising for a certain period of time.
Mood Modification: This refers to the subjective experiences that people report when exercising that can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘‘buzz’’ or a ‘‘high’’, or paradoxically tranquillizing feel of ‘‘escape’’ or ‘‘numbing’’).
Increased Tolerance: The individual needs to keep increasing the volume, frequency or intensity of exercise in order to feel the desired effect- be it euphoria, a sense of accomplishment or increased self-esteem.
Intention Effects: The individual is unable to stick to his or her intended routine and frequently trains longer than intended.
Time: A significant amount of time is spent preparing for, recovering from or engaging in physical exercise.
Continuance: Behavior where the individual continues to exercise in spite of the fact that he or she is aware that the activity is creating or exacerbating physical or interpersonal problems. For example- continuing to train in spite of serious injury, or breaking off relationships with loved ones in order to engage in the activity.
Reduction In Other Activities: Behavior where social, occupational and or recreational activities are stopped as a direct result of physical exercise.
Relapse: In spite of significant time away from the addictive exercise activity, the tendency exists for the same patterns of addictive behavior to resurface. Even after years of abstinence and or control.
Exercise Addiction Is Not A Matter Of Intensity Or Exercise Frequency
Given the above criteria what immediately stands out is that frequency and intensity are not qualifying features of exercise addiction. [4,5] An athlete preparing for a competition for example may devote a significant amount of time to the activity at hand while cutting back sharply on his or her other activities. He or she may even experience some sense of withdrawal at the end of the competitive cycle when the frequency or intensity of training is reduced. However, even though several of the criteria for exercise addiction are met, this behavior does not necessarily constitute addiction as there are other important very phases that must occur before a behavior can be categorized as addictive. Many frequent exercisers are often concerned about their regular training habits, however in part two of this series we will highlight the phases that distinguish exercise addiction from highly engaged exercise. We will also take a hard look at what factors predispose individuals to exercise addiction and provide a short evaluation that can be used to determine whether or not you may have a problem.
Continued in Part 2 Of Our Series–
Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in NYC. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.
1. Friemuth M, Moniz S., Kim S.R. Clarifying Exercise Addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2011
2. Fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (Planned publication May 2013)
3. Terry, A.; Szabo, A.; Griffiths, M. The exercise addiction inventory: A new brief screening tool. Addict. Res. Theory 2004
4.Allegre, B.; Therme, P.; Griffiths, M. Individual factors and the context of physical activity in exercise dependence: A prospective study of “ultra-marathoners”. Int. J. Ment. Health Addict. 2007
5.Meyer, C.; Taranis, L.; Goodwin, H.; Haycraft, E. Compulsive exercise and eating disorders. Eur. Eat. Disord. Rev. 2011
6. Aidman, E.V.; Woollard, S. The influence of self-reported exercise addiction on acute emotional and physiological responses to brief exercise deprivation. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 2003