It’s hard to fault someone for exercising when most of us spend too much time on the couch. But when fitness becomes the top priority in a person’s life, it can signal a dependence, says Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor of health and exercise psychology at McMaster University. “People with an exercise addiction can’t stop even if they are sick or have other obligations.” If forced to take time off, they have psychological withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and irritability.
Men and women are equally prone to exercise addiction, which affects about three percent of the population, according to a 2010 study at the University of Southern California. Exercise addicts usually work out two to three hours a day, six or seven days a week. But just exercising a lot doesn’t signal a problem. “If you allow yourself to skip exercise when you’ve got a deadline at work or the flu, you’re fine,” says Sachs. “But if there’s a compelling reason not to work out and you still do it, you’ve lost control and it’s an addiction.”
Addicts may feel compelled to exercise to extremes as a way to relieve stress or experience the endorphin rush of the “runner’s high,” or to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Addiction to exercise often accompanies an eating disorder as a way to lose or maintain weight, says Martin Ginis.
People who are perpetually anxious and worried are also at higher risk, as they may be using exercise to manage their anxiety. They may get anxious when they miss a workout, so they exercise even more. This addiction also boosts the risk for psychological burnout, marked by a loss of interest in other aspects of life.
Physically, addicts are at high risk for injury. “They may push through pain, which can cause tendonitis or more serious tendon damage that takes months to heal,” says Meredith Bean, a sports medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente in California. “To stay fit and healthy, we recommend 30 to 90 minutes of exercise five days per week. To minimize the risk of injury, people should do a variety of activities. A runner, for instance, could also swim or cycle.”
If your exercise habits suggest an addiction, talk to your doctor, who may make a referral to a psychologist or counselor. An expert can help to uncover the cause, such as using exercise as a way to avoid relationship problems, says Martin Ginis. The next step is getting help to deal with this root cause, such as treating anxiety.
Overcoming exercise addiction also involves cutting back on exercise. Instead of working out for three hours a day, the person could substitute an enjoyable activity for one hour. “It can be something physically active, like dancing or playing with the kids,” says Sachs. “But it might be difficult for an exercise addict to cut back. A sports psychologist can help the person find the balance with family, work and exercise.”
Web exclusive May 2011 Best Health magazine