A popular fitness meme shared by many over social media proudly states: “Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” but when does committed cross the line to addicted when it comes to exercise?

While exercise is a healthy pursuit and pushing your physical boundaries to achieve new personal bests is an admirable trait, problems arise when it becomes something else.

When taken to extremes, exercise can actually damage our health and our bodies, often leading to conditions like anaemia, arthritis, heart problems, hormonal dysfunction, muscle tears, tendon and ligament damage and stress fractures, to name just a few.

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Commitment vs compulsion

Despite the potential risks, there are those who tread a fine line between commitment to exercise and sport and obsessive behaviour.

These people often feel a compulsion to exercise, and often go to extremes. The thought of taking a day off often results in serious anxiety.

In most cases, when the desire to become fit and healthy becomes an all-consuming obsession, we can generally start to frame this as exercise addiction.

This psychological state, which is also known as exercise dependence, compulsive exercise or obligatory exercise, is characterised by an obsessive engagement in any form of exercise, despite the potential for negative consequences.

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The different guises of exercise addiction

According to Renee Shearing, a Cape Town-based registered Occupational Therapist who specialises in dealing with and counselling addictions, eating disorders, stress and trauma, diagnosing a condition such as exercise addiction can be tricky because it is commonly associated with other psychological disorders.

There are, of course, those who chase the endorphin rush that comes from exercise, which is similar to that of some drug and alcohol addicts. The release of these neurotransmitters act on the nervous system to create a sense of pleasure.

When someone becomes addicted to this sensation, they may develop an exercise dependency to feel good, which is termed primary exercise addiction, as the physical activity itself is the gratification.

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When crushing calories goes too far

The other, more common form of exercise addiction is often classified as a secondary addiction because it occurs in conjunction with an eating disorder and is often used to control and manipulate weight.

People who suffer from conditions such as exercise bulimia or anorexia athletica tend to use excessive exercise to mask their calorie-purging behaviour,” explains Shearing. “However, it is also a mental obsession, in the same context as that of an eating disorder.”

However, exercise addiction isn’t classified as a clinical condition by the American Psychiatric Association, which means that there are no specific diagnostic criteria to determine this condition outside of its association with an eating disorder.

It is, therefore, well hidden and can fly under the radar for a long time, but it is hugely prevalent,” states Shearing.

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Blurring the lines

One of the major issues faced in determining if exercise habits border on the obsessive is the fact that society generally praises the commitment to training exhibited in these situations.

Exercise is considered a healthy pursuit and is even used in the treatment of other addictions. In fact, most exercise addicts won’t see anything wrong with their behaviour,” she adds.

However, there is a fine line between intense or competitive-level training, and the damaging effects of compulsive exercise.

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A maladaptive coping mechanism

The other issue is that the relationship or dependency that someone has to exercise may serve as a coping or masking mechanism. This is commonly referred to as a behavioural addiction, on par with gambling, sex or video game addictions.

People may exercise excessively because it offers them a distraction from their problems as they probably never developed other coping mechanisms. In these instances, the addiction is a subconscious avoidance tactic and this fact is often quite hidden to the person engaged in the addictive behaviour,” elaborates Shearing.

That’s because these people often aren’t aware what the behaviour is masking and it’s the reason why they tend to get defensive when the issue of excessive exercise is raised with them.

They’ll tell you that exercise brings them enjoyment,” continues Shearing, “but it’s actually just a maladaptive coping mechanism – an unconscious avoidance of whatever is troubling them, be it stress, relationship issues, trauma, or self loathing. This avoidance behaviour soon becomes a way of life for them, but it’s nothing more than a way to not deal with what is going on in their lives.”

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Younger people at higher risk

Shearing says this condition can be more common in younger people as they have yet to develop the innate cognitive ability to tolerate discomfort, emotional pain or emotional turmoil.

Older people are generally more resilient and tend to have the capacity, skills and mechanisms needed to cope with modern life’s various stresses, which means they’re less likely to become addicted to exercise.”

But when younger people use avoidance tactics such as excessive exercise, it inhibits the natural development of the neural pathways that naturally develop over time as we are exposed to and learn to cope with stress.

We need to be exposed to something first and learn to tolerate it before we can decide how to deal with it or how to act appropriately. Sometimes this process never happens and we find other ways to cope, like with exercise. It effectively replaces the mental capacity needed to process and deal with issues, and the more life throws at them, the more they’ll need this crutch to cope with the stress.”

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Chasing the runner’s high

This is different to someone who is addicted to exercise who constantly chases the rush of endorphins because they tend to build a tolerance to them and, therefore, needs more and more exercise to achieve the same ‘high’.

Shearing adds that humans have also been socialised out of the instinctive ways that other mammals deal with stress, which, coincidently, is often through specific forms of physical activity.

“However, without this ability, we become addicted to the behaviour that provides this release.”

Regardless of the underlying mechanism, though, the outcome of this addiction tends to be the same.

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Identifying an addiction

So how can you determine if you’ve crossed over from being a dedicated and committed gym-goer to athlete to an obsessed exercise addict? Shearing says the common tell-tale signs associated with exercise addiction can include:

  • Withdrawal from social and family commitments.
  • The emergence of relationship issues due to time away from partners and family.
  • Overwhelming guilt at missing even a single exercise session.
  • Obsessing over workouts or the planning of training programmes.
  • Downplaying the time spent exercising and getting defensive when confronted about it.
  • Poor productivity in other areas of life such as work and home.
  • Struggles with depression, anxiety and neuroticism.

Physical manifestations of exercise addiction include:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Excessive or extreme weight loss
  • Regular illness due to a suppressed immune system
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Poor general health
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Overuse injuries

The first step Shearing takes with clients who may be addicted to exercise is to get them to stop training for two weeks.

That’s not enough time to lose any significant strength or fitness, but it will tell you a great deal about your relationship with exercise. That’s because it’s unlikely that an exercise addict could make it even five days without going a little stir-crazy.”

Shearing requests that her clients use this time to examine how they feel and think in the absence of exercise.

“Journalling is a great tool in this regard as it helps to identify trends in thoughts and emotions during this time, making it easier to determine if exercise is an all-consuming component in your life. Most importantly, though, we work on finding what a client’s motivation is for exercising.”

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Taking back control of your behaviour

It’s only when you identify and acknowledge these factors and give yourself time to deal with them that you can generally start to manage or even stop the addictive behaviour,” continues Shearing.

This process requires brutal honesty, and self-control is then required to manage exercise addiction, in conjunction with the development of the coping mechanisms that were lacking in the first place.

Interestingly, Shearing says that a specialised form of physical activity known as Tension/Trauma Release Exercise (TRE®) can be used to help people cope with stress.

It activates the inherent natural mechanism within our bodies that deals with stress, called a tremor mechanism, which works to down-regulate stress and release tension.

Ultimately, you can’t keep doing things that stop you from feeling. And if exercise is the crutch you use to withdraw from life’s difficulties, then I strongly urge you to seek help by going to speak to a qualified psychologist for the sake of both your mental and physical health,” concludes Shearing.