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FIT LIFE: Can exercise become an addiction?

By Heather Hausenblas, PhD

Have you ever noticed a very enthusiastic exerciser at your gym – someone who hogs the elliptical or does multiple fitness classes in a row five, six or even seven days a week? Perhaps you have admired this exerciser’s dedication, determination, and drive. More is better, right?

There may be a tipping point at which too much exercise may turn from a healthy pursuit to a harmful addiction. How can you tell if someone may be addicted to exercise? It’s difficult to separate healthy exercise from a harmful obsessive. Just because someone runs, bikes, or swims long distances or works out seven days a week does not mean that this person is addicted to exercise. It is the compulsive need and obsessive motivation to exercise that distinguishes someone from a regular exerciser, to an extremely committed exerciser, to an addicted exerciser.

It’s when exercise becomes all consuming – when you continually skip social time with friends and family or renege on work obligations – that your workouts may have become a cause for concern. Though exercise addiction isn’t an official mental disorder, many research advances have been made toward identifying and understanding its signs, symptoms, and risk factors.

Healthy or Harmful?

According to research published in the journal Psychology of Exercise, you may be at risk for exercise addiction if you answer yes to at least three of the following seven criteria:

  1. Tolerance: Do you need more and more exercise to achieve the same effects?
  2. Withdrawal: Do you feel anxious, moody, depressed, and tense if you don’t exercise?
  3. Intention Effect: Do you exercise for longer than intended (e.g., do you do two fitness classes instead of the one class you originally intended to complete)?
  4. Lack of Control: Do you have difficulty scaling back how long and hard you train?
  5. Time: Do you spend huge amounts of time on fitness related activities (e.g., are your vacations fitness focused; are you constantly reading fitness-related books and magazines)?
  6. Reduction of Other Pursuits: Does your exercise routine affect other parts of your life (e.g., would you give up dinner with friends just so you can fit that spin class in)?
  7. Continuance Despite Injury: Do you continue to exercise even when injured?

In short, if a person has strong feelings of tension and depression when unable to exercise, spends little to no time with family or friends because they have to exercise, and continues to exercise despite a doctor’s advice to allow an overuse injury to heal, then he or she may be at high risk for exercise addiction.

For most of us, exercise is great for the body, mind, and soul. But for a limited number (about 0.4 percent of global population), it can escalate into an addiction. Research continues, and mental health professionals are becoming increasingly aware that more exercise is not always better or healthier. Like most things we do – moderation and balance are key to a healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Heather Hausenblas

Fit Life, by fitness and healthy aging expert Heather Hausenblas, Associate Dean of the School of Applied Health Sciences and Professor of Kinesiology in Jacksonville University’s Brooks Rehabilitation College of Healthcare Sciences, is a recurring column in The Florida Times-Union. E-mail your questions to hhausen@ju.edu.