When people say too much of a good thing is bad for you, you’re probably not thinking about exercise. After all, how can going out for a morning run or hitting the gym every day not be good for you?
In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by #fitspiration messages, it feels like getting more exercise is the ideal thing to do.
Nobody Not a lot of people get shamed for working out once or twice a day and having washboard abs to show for it. If you exercise even more than that, you’re branded a superhuman and everyone wants to be like you.
It’s sad because many people don’t realize there’s a dark side to this too. Anything that makes us want to do a little bit too much of is bad for us, including exercise. In fact, wanting to exercise more and more to the point of neglecting other aspects of your life can be downright dangerous.
What is Exercise Addiction?
The problem with exercise addiction is it’s tough to recognize. It’s not easy telling the difference between occasionally over-training and being full-on addicted to exercise and its effects on your mind and body.
On the outside, both look the same. A person with exercise-dependence can work out at the same intensity, duration, and frequency as someone else who has a healthy relationship with fitness and exercise.
The difference lies in what’s going on inside. People who are addicted to exercise give it a much higher value than anything else, to the point of ignoring the other important things in life.
When something gets in the way of their meticulously planned workouts, such as a family emergency or a busy day at work, they feel resentful and begrudge whomever or whatever caused them to miss one day at the gym.
And when they fail to meet their rigid fitness goals, they mistakenly think they’re not doing enough. As a result, people who are addicted to exercise end up pushing themselves even more. They choose to ignore the scientific fact that rest and recovery are vital parts of an effective fitness plan.
What Causes Exercise Addiction?
While scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of exercise addiction, a popular theory is that it comes as a result of psychological factors.
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Addiction, researchers were able to establish a link between low-self-esteem and exercise-dependence. Apparently, people who constantly harbor negative thoughts about themselves are more likely to go overboard and rely on exercise and its effects on their physical appearance to feel good about themselves.
Furthermore, the researchers discovered that people with narcissistic traits (e.g. a need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others) are more likely to become addicted to working out.
When both traits, low self-esteem and narcissism, are combined, you get a double whammy and the chances of becoming addicted are even greater.
Those with certain personality traits are also bound to be more likely to develop dependence. Research by addiction expert Heather A. Hausenblaus shows people who score high in extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness are more at risk.
Think of a friend with a Type A personality. He’s a go-getter with big goals and a huge desire to be the center of attention at all times. People with high-achieving, perfectionist tendencies are more likely to become exercise-dependent.
But don’t worry if you’re a Type A yourself. Just because you have these traits doesn’t automatically make you an exercise addict. A better way to figure out if you have exercise addiction is to look out for the warning signs.
What are the Signs of Exercise Addiction?
Being honest with yourself is the first thing you have to do to spot an addiction. It’s difficult to recognize this problem for what it is because, often, everything looks fine on the surface.
Underneath, however, is a diminishing sense of control over how much and how hard you exercise, accompanied by feelings of distress that continue to grow quietly. Some people choose to ignore it, primarily because they develop increasing tolerance of their behavior – something that is common in most behavioral addictions.
But looking the other way only makes matters worse. Exercise-dependence, like all other addictions, will come back soon enough to bite you in the behind if you don’t deal with it right away.
Hausenblas, who has spent most of her career studying exercise addiction, worked with kinesiologist Danielle Symons Downs to developed an Exercise Dependence Scale to help you assess the symptoms of exercise addiction.
Do you find yourself constantly wanting to push your limits? Are you always exercising more because you’re no longer getting the same “buzz” as before? It’s normal to want to become better versions of ourselves, but not at the expense of our mental and physiological health.
When you scale back on the intensity or take a day off from your routine, do you experience withdrawal symptoms? People who are addicted to exercise often feel anxious, irritable, restless, or fatigued when they can’t have their “fix.” For them, the only way to get rid of these symptoms is to go back to the gym and exercise as hard as or even harder than before.
3. Intention Effect
When you tell yourself you’re going to exercise for half an hour, do you end up doing so for two hours instead? When you set a goal to run two miles, do you go five? Often, exercise-dependence pushes you to do way, way more than you set out to do.
4. Lack of Control
You may recognize all too well the painful effects of too much exercise, such as fatigue, physical injuries, and even the end of close relationships. So you do your best to scale back on your workouts, only to find out that you no longer have control over your own behavior.
Do you spend more time on your workouts than on anything else? This isn’t only about the hour or two that you actually work out. It also includes time spent researching about fitness and nutrition, planning your routine, recovering, and thinking about exercise in general.
6. Reductions in Other Activities
Do you spend so much time on your workouts that you have nothing left for everything else? I once knew someone who cut short what could’ve been a great first date because she had to hit the gym the second time that day. And it’s not surprising for someone who’s gone off the deep end to lose their job because they’re doing nothing at work but think about exercise.
Once you realize that excessive exercise is ruining the rest of your life, you should know it’s time to stop. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works once exercise has hacked into your brain and has rendered you an addict. Do you keep on exercising at the same levels or even more, even though you know you have to scale back? If yes, then it may be time to seek professional help.
If you exhibit three or more of these red flags, then perhaps it’s time to put that barbell down for a minute and get some help. Seeing a professional who has worked with people with behavioral addictions is crucial if you want to address this problem and turn your life around.
Remember, you don’t need to give up working out altogether. Know that exercise is a vital part of every healthy life, and that humans, in general, actually need to go out more and move. The key is learning to strike a balance among all aspects of your life and fully acknowledging the underlying issues that are causing the addiction.
I wish you good health and the best in life!