'The dose makes the poison', as Paracelsus famously said, but it can be difficult to determine how much exercise is too much without knowing the circumstances surrounding each person. Are you overdoing workouts? Here are seven signs to look out for.
Whether it’s the guilt of having missed a workout session or dragging yourself out of bed for an early morning jog for fear of missing your weekly target, ‘exercise addiction’ is becoming a major concern among fitness experts and health specialists.
Unlike many other addictive behaviours, we are constantly encouraged to exercise more. Working up a sweat is known to boost metabolism, help lose weight, build muscle and improve our physical and mental health. Despite this, it’s possible to create an unhealthy, compulsive relationship with exercise and fitness.
We’ve asked the specialists from Delamere Health (opens in new tab) to uncover some of the warning signs.
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What is exercise addiction?
Getting regular exercise is an important part of staying healthy. Exercise has been linked to positive health benefits such as increased energy, greater quality sleep, reduced stress and heart disease risk, and a boost in endorphins, the 'happy hormone'. While there are many physical and psychological benefits of exercise, it can generate negative effects when endured at high levels, including an unhealthy addiction.
Many individuals feel compelled to exercise and are unable to stop even when they experience pain or injury. Exercise addiction is described as an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise and is often the outcome of body image disorders and eating disorders.
Although it’s not classified as a mental health disorder, exercise addiction carries similar emotional effects as other addictions, for example, obsessive behaviour, continuing despite physical harm and wanting to stop, engaging in secret behaviours, and denial of activities.
What causes exercise addiction?
Exercise addiction typically stems from individuals having a strong desire to improve their overall physical fitness and wellbeing. This could be the result of you being a little bit too obsessed with your favourite Instagram influencer or not understanding how a healthy body should look like.
Those with body image problems, low self-esteem and limited self-confidence are generally at a higher risk than those without.
There is a strong correlation between an unhealthy relationship with exercise and eating disorders. Individuals who suffer from anorexia or bulimia, or other body image disorders can often have a destructive obsession with fitness and exercise.
Closely linked to exercise addiction is a condition called orthorexia. Steven Bratman, an MD in California who coined the term in 1996, describes orthorexia as a “fixation on righteous eating”. When meal prep becomes an obsession, and you see macros instead of plates of food, you're experiencing a certain level of orthorexia.
In fact, research carried out by Brewerton (opens in new tab) discovered that nearly 40% of patients suffering from anorexia had also been displaying compulsive exercise behaviours.
When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins and dopamine from the brain. When these hormones are released into our bodies, we experience happiness, relaxation, overall mood improvements, and lower symptoms of depression.
After someone stops exercising, these feelings of joy often leave. Increasing the level of exercise to trigger a chemical release to reduce stress and improve mood is usually the way people gradually develop an exercise disorder.
What are the key signs of exercise addiction?
Keeping fit and active is a key part of maintaining health and happiness, but how do you know when too much of a good thing becomes bad?
Despite there being no formal diagnosis of exercise addiction, there are still symptoms associated with the thoughts, emotions, behaviours of those who present with the disorder. Here are the seven key signs you should look out for.
Lack of control
Those experiencing exercise addictions find it difficult to control their desire for fitness. This can even go as far as working out while injured or experiencing illness. People also have unsuccessful attempts at reducing exercise levels or stopping beyond a certain time.
Depression and anxiety
Exercise has been shown to increase mood and overall mental wellbeing; some addicts will become obsessed with the hours spent working out to overcome feelings of sadness and fatigue. When exercise isn’t possible, they will often begin to show high levels of depression and anxiety. The dangerous compulsion often leads to strong feelings of guilt.
People who are gym obsessed measure progress in terms of size, strength or speed. They often determine one’s self-worth based on their exercise achievements and fitness ability.
Body image disorder
Fitness addiction causes individuals to create an unrealistic version of themselves and strive for ‘perfection’, even if it’s damaging and unhealthy for them to do so. When they are not at their desired weight, strength or fitness goal, it can lead to eating disorders, calorie counting, overexercising and compulsiveness.
Time and schedule controlled
Refusing to miss a workout, regardless of weather, injury or schedule, is one of the most common signs of exercise addiction. People often find themselves skipping scheduled activities they enjoy for exercise instead. They might find themselves spending more time working out per session beyond what is considered safe and healthy.
Denial and defensive
When questioned, they will act defensively when discussing the potential compulsive exercising problem.
Feeling tired constantly
Spending too much time working out will often lead to fatigue and exhaustion. This pressure on your body and health can lead to sickness and injuries if not managed correctly.
If you can promise us you won't go crazy with your workouts, we are happy to recommend some gear for you. For running fans, we'd recommend the best running shoes – also best running shoes for women – and best trail running shoes guides for inspiration.