Research has told us for decades how important it is to exercise and keep our bodies healthy. For many people, getting enough exercise is a regular struggle. For some, however, exercise becomes an obsession that can be detrimental to health and well-being. I once had a client who would wake up at 4:00am every morning to ensure she could spend 2 hours in the gym each morning before going to work, and she would also go running through her neighborhoods every evening. If she missed a day of exercising, even if she felt injured or tired, she would beat herself up for days and work-out even harder the following week. Mental health experts recognize that this kind of behavior can be classified as an unhealthy relationship to exercise, or even an addiction to exercise.
Exercise addiction is often associated with Orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating including extreme limitations in diet. Just as someone with an eating disorder may have a drive to be thin, those with exercise addictions can have a drive to be thin or a drive to have muscle definition. They can become obsessed with how many hours they spend exercising, what they are eating, the supplements they are taking, their body measurements, weight, and appearance.
So, how bad is it to be addicted to exercise? We all know that regular exercise is healthy, so we might wonder – how can a person exercise too much? Well, if you know someone who you suspect is addicted to exercise, like my client mentioned above, they are most likely experiencing adverse symptoms that can range from socially disruptive to life-threatening. If someone is spending large chunks of their time every day exercising, preoccupied with their body shape and size, they may become isolated and not be able to maintain relationships. They may experience electrolyte imbalance, bodily injuries and levels of physical exhaustion that can be dangerous.
How can you tell if someone you love is addicted to exercise? Even though exercise addiction is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) specifically, we can use the symptoms that are listed for behavioral addictions as well as eating disorders to gauge whether or not someone has an unhealthy relationship to exercise. Questions to ask include:
- Does your loved one spend a large amount of time exercising, thinking about exercising, or ruminating about their body shape or size?
- Does your loved one continue to exercise even when they are injured are in pain?
- Does your loved one regularly miss family or social events because of their commitment to exercise?
- Does your loved one express not wanting to exercise, but feeling like “they have to”?
- Does your loved one exhibit signs of Orthorexia, or obsession with their food intake and nutrition?
If you answered yes to even a few of these symptoms, your loved one may indeed be struggling with an unhealthy relationship to exercise that could be described as an addiction. If your loved one is struggling, it is important to meet them with compassion. Gently suggest that they could benefit from some professional help. A mental health professional who is familiar with eating disorders and exercise addictions can help your loved one identify the underlying psycho-emotional issues that lead to their extreme behavior. For example, developing an exercise addiction may be a coping mechanism for feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or depression, or it could be linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) with obsessive thoughts about body shape and size, calories, and amount of time exercising. Once the underlying issues are identified, therapist and client can work together to help develop less-obsessive coping tools and an appropriate exercise regimen that will lead to a more balanced life.
Holly Daniels, PhD, LMFT
Clinical Systems Director, Sober College