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Exercise Addiction

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The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

While it may not necessarily sound like a bad thing to everyone, exercise addiction can lead to real problems, so you may 
be wondering, what is exercise addiction? After all, numerous studies have demonstrated the physical and emotional health 
benefits of regular exercise — it is essential to our well-being. Unlike many other addictive behaviours, we are encouraged 
to exercise more. However, there is such a thing as exercise addiction — and it can have harmful consequences.

Characteristics of Exercise Addiction
Several characteristics distinguish healthy regular exercise from exercise addiction.
Firstly, exercise addiction is maladaptive, so instead of improving a person’s life, it causes more problems. Exercise addiction 
can threaten health, causing injuries, physical damage due to inadequate rest, and in some instances (particularly when
co-occurring with an eating disorder), malnutrition and other problems.
Secondly, it is persistent, so an exercise addict exercises too much and for too long without giving the body a chance 
to recover. We all overexert ourselves on occasion and usually rest afterward. But people with exercise addiction exercise 
for hours every day, regardless of fatigue or illness. As the individual’s principle way of coping with stress, they experience
anxiety, frustration, or emotional discomfort if they are unable to do so.

The Confusion and Controversy About Exercise Addiction
Exercise addiction is probably the most contradictory of all the addictions. As well as being a widely promoted health 
behaviour, important for the prevention and treatment for a range of ailments, exercise can be an effective part of treatment 
for other mental health problems.
Exercise is even promoted as part of a complete program of recovery from other addictions. It forms part of new and effective
approaches to treating mental health problems which commonly co-occur with or underlie addictions such as depression 
and borderline personality disorder (BPD). It's understandable how some are confused by how exercise could be an addiction itself.
Like other behavioural addictions, exercise addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive 
exercise can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms — such 
as withdrawal — for an activity to be a true addiction.

Although there is considerable research showing that exercise releases endorphins (opioids produced within the body), 
and excessive exercise causes tolerance to the hormones and neurotransmitters released, these physiological processes 
are often not considered comparable to other substance addictions.
Exercise addiction is not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the gold 
standard for the diagnosis of mental disorders, although several authors have suggested diagnostic criteria. 
Excessive exercise is included in the DSM-5 as one of the criteria for the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, along with other
“compensatory behaviours” used to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, and misuse of laxatives.

How Is Exercise Addiction Like Other Addictions?
There are several similarities between exercise addiction and drug addiction, including effects on mood, tolerance, 
and withdrawal.
Neurotransmitters and the brain's reward system have been implicated in exercise and other addictions. For example, 
dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and regular, excessive exercise has been 
shown to influence parts of the brain involving dopamine.

Like other addictive substances and behaviours, exercise is associated with pleasure and social, cultural or sub-cultural desirability.
People who develop exercise addiction tend to be inflexible in their thinking, similar to people with other addictions, and this can 
reinforce the pattern of addiction by helping them to exercise regularly. In addition, research shows that even people at high risk
of developing exercise addiction are supported in exercising by family and friends.

Healthy Fitness vs. Exercise Addiction
Only 8% of gym users meet the criteria for exercise addiction. In the classic pattern of addiction, exercise addicts increase
their amount of exercise to re-experience feelings of escapism or the natural high they had previously experienced with shorter 
periods of exercise. They report withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to exercise, and tend to go back to high levels of 
exercise after a period of abstinence or control. Three percent of gym users feel they cannot stop exercising.
While many reasons for exercising are shared among exercisers whether or not they are addicted — health, fitness, weight
management, body image, and stress relief — exercisers who are not addicted cite other reasons that exercise addicts do not 
share, such as social enjoyment, relaxation, and time alone.

People at risk for exercise addiction have difficulties in other areas in their lives that drive them to exercise to dangerous levels.
They feel strongly that exercise is the most important thing in their life, and they use exercise as a way to express emotions
including anger, anxiety, and grief, and to deal with work and relationship stress. Some know that their excessive exercising 
has caused conflicts with their family members.

A central function of exercise addiction is the sense of control — over mood, the body, the environment — that exercise provides.
It also provides a sense of structure. Ironically, as with other addictions, the attempt to exert control eventually leads to a loss 
of control over the ability to balance the activity with other priorities in life.

What to Do If You Think You May Be Addicted to Exercise
Exercise is a great way to manage stress and to address negative feelings. If your need for exercise is greater than
your ability to manage your relationships and feelings, you may need more help, both to overcome your addiction and to find
healthier ways of coping. Speak with your doctor about the best way to treat your addiction.






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