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Exercise Addiction: Is It Real?

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/31/2010

Do you have questions about exercise addiction? If so, read on to learn more about this addiction and what to do if it occurs.

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    Millions of Americans are concerned with the growing obesity rate in the United States and this results in some taking extensive measures to try to stay in shape. Exercise addiction is indeed real, but how does this addiction begin? Exercise is deemed an addiction when it gets to a point where it is preventing the person from having normal interactions at work or home. A person may find it impossible to stop exercising, even when injured, and they strive to increase their workout length and intensity.

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    When is it too much?

    So, when does exercise become an addiction? If a person is pushing everything else to the side to exercise, they may have an addiction. This addiction results in a person exercising through injuries, which in turn causes further injury. If a person is unable to exercise, they may become anxious, upset, irritable, and sometimes even angry. This addiction often accompanies an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa. Some believe that other mental health disorders, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder may also play a role.

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    Why do people get addicted?

    When a person exercises, endorphin levels increase. Endorphins are chemicals that are said to act on the exact receptors that narcotics act on. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner's high” and other similar euphoric feelings associated with exercise. It is thought that since physical activity, specifically intense physical activity, may have a feeling similar to that of narcotics, a person could become addicted. So, in a sense, exercise itself may not be the actual addiction, but the feelings it produces. However, many argue that the desire to have the perfect body is the true reason behind exercise addiction.

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    Why is it dangerous?

    Like all addictions, exercise addiction has dangers. We need exercise to maintain a healthy body, but there is a such thing as too much. When a person exercises intensely, their body requires extra calories to repair their joints, bones, and muscles – the tissues they are using when they exercise. When a person is not consuming enough calories, the person will become injured due to their tissues becoming weakened.

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    Warning Signs

    If a person is addicted to exercise, they will show warning signs. These signs may include:

    • Exercising alone and avoiding interaction, specifically from trainers and gym staff
    • Skipping work, class, or other responsibilities in order to exercise
    • Exercising even when injured or sick
    • Following the same exercise routine and increasing length and intensity often

    If exercising is affecting you or someone you know, it is important to seek help. This addiction is just as strong as any other addiction and getting help will greatly increase the person's chance of being able to get back to a healthy life.

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    Resources

    Allen, C. (2003). Addicted to Exercise. Retrieved on September 16, 2010 from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200312/addicted-exercise

    Mandel, D. (2010). Hooked on the Pain: Exercise Addiction. Retrieved on September 16, 2010 from SelfGrowth.com: http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Mandel4.html