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Exercise Addiction: When a Good Thing Turns Bad


Regular exercise combined with healthy eating and adequate sleep can be a beneficial part of daily life. Having an exercise routine can help with weight loss, increase energy levels, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and simply help individuals feel happier. Exercise addiction, exercise dependence, compulsive exercise, obligatory exercise, or anorexia athletica are what can happen when a good thing is taken too far.

Exercise addiction can be tough to spot and tougher to admit. There is a fine line between rigorous training and compulsive addictive behaviour. Further, it is estimated that 0.3% of the US population has an exercise dependency. Though this dependency is rare, it is still important to understand and identify if an exercise addiction may be at play.

General Information about Exercise Addiction

There are generally two types of exercise addiction: primary and secondary. Primary exercise addiction is where the addict seeks out physical activity. Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which makes individuals feel pleasure and happiness. In primary exercise addiction, it is this dopamine release that begins to create the compulsive exercise. In secondary exercise addiction, physical activity is secondary to an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, used primarily to control weight loss and body image.

Exercise addiction is difficult to diagnose: in many cases, the addict doesn’t see anything wrong with their behaviour, and therefore does not seek help. It is also not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5) which further contributes to denial from those who have a dependency to physical activity. Mental health professionals like doctors, psychiatrists or psychologists can help diagnose exercise addiction, as it is often a behavioural cycle rather than a chemical dependency.

Comorbidity and Transference

Comorbidity is where more than one condition occurs at the same time. While eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can be common among those who are addicted to physical activity, so can other mental issues like depression and anxiety. The physical activity is seen as a way to ‘blow off steam’, but if not dealt with appropriately, depression and anxiety can lead to further issues. Research has shown that approximately 39% – 48% of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia also suffer from exercise addiction, as they seek a way to control their body image and self-esteem.

Transference is when an addict replaces one addiction with another. Those who are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction may turn to working out as a way to control temptation and get their minds off the possibility of relapse. While exercise can be a great way to get healthy boosts of dopamine in the body, one needs to be cognisant of why they are working out as well as how frequent and how hard the workouts are. If an addict is not actively pursuing sobriety and trying to get to the root of their behaviour, they may not experience true sobriety, but just replace one addiction for another.

Signs of Exercise Addiction

Since the DSM-5 does not officially recognize this form of addiction, identifying the red flags can be extremely difficult. Risk factors could include:

  • Extreme weight loss or weight gain
  • Irritability
  • One’s self-esteem is tied to body image or workout results
  • Tolerance: More physical activity over time.
  • Continuance: Continuing to workout despite negative consequences or injuries. Injuries could include stress fractures, extreme fatigue or exhaustion.
  • Reduction in other activities: The addict may forego vacations and time spent with family members or loved ones in order to prioritize time spent in the gym.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: In some cases, addicts can experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those who are recovering from substance abuse. These could include anxiety, irritability, restlessness and sleep problems.


Just like recovery from substance abuse, no two recoveries from exercise addiction will be the same. Exercise itself is not a bad thing, but those who suffer from a dependency may need to abstain for a period of time until moderation can be exhibited. The addict needs to understand and identify if they are dependent on the exercise itself or if it is a manifestation of a deeper body image issue like anorexia or bulimia. As with any addiction, self-awareness is key to recovery and avoiding relapse. Understanding why there is a desire to continually exercise or workout is important in identifying if an addiction exists in the first place. Remember, no matter what addiction is at play recovery is always possible.


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