What are the signs of over exercising? What are the dangers of over exercising? Are there links between over exercising and depression?
Many people are passionate about their exercise routines. Physical exercise has many positives associated with it, including strengthening the body and elevating mood. But when someone develops an obsession to working out and spends an abnormal amount of time exercising and feels anxious during periods when they’re not exercising, it’s possible that this person may have developed an exercise addiction.
It is estimated that 30 out of every 10,000 people (or 3% of the US population) suffer from exercise addiction.1 Competitive athletes and people who go to the gym regularly are at a higher risk than others for over exercising to the point of addiction.
The users of fitness apps and other types of technology to track their fitness results also have a high risk of becoming addicted to exercise. The technologies that are most often used by people to keep track of their exercise and touch base with others about fitness results include GPS watches, wearable trackers, on-line app trackers, and postings on Facebook.
Studies have shown that activity tracking can lessen the enjoyment of the fitness activity you most enjoy doing. Nearly 80% of the women wearing tracking devices in one study felt tremendous pressure to reach their daily fitness goals.4
Getting regular exercise is generally thought to be a great habit for its physical and mental health benefits. But for some people, exercising can become too much of a good thing.
Since exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins and dopamine, someone who exercises a lot may want to increase these feelings of joy they get during and right after a good workout. When they stop exercising, the mood-boosting rewards go away. To trigger more of these chemical releases, they need to put in increasingly more time at the gym or on the track to feel the same way.
Even when someone exercises to the extent that they become injured, there may still be a craving to go running, work out with weights, or whichever fitness routine gives them the most pleasure. This compulsion to exercise regardless of pain, time constraints, or how always being at the gym negatively affects one’s social life can lead to exercise addiction.
There are some negative consequences linked to a constant need for physical training and exercise even in the face of physical injury. These risks include:5
Exercising to an extreme can lead to physical and psychological harm. Some of the physical issues and potential dangers from over exercising can lead to injuries like stress fractures. Having an addiction to exercise pushes people to over perform, even in light of pain or the knowledge that going that extra mile will cause muscular aches and strains.
The feel-good cortisol hormones that your body releases when exercising are produced by your adrenal gland. But this gland only has so much that it can produce. As you push your body to its physical limits, your adrenal gland will have to push much harder to keep up. This places stress on the adrenal gland, which can be unhealthy.
Females who suffer from an exercise addiction may experience missed periods and irregular menstrual cycles. Some might stop menstruating because of the energy that needs to be expended during rigorous exercising. All of that physical activity can also make a woman lose a great amount of weight, which can also lead to menstruation interruptions.
If you are addicted to exercise and find that you can’t fit a routine into your schedule, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include feelings of irritability, anxiety, and guilt about missing a workout. These negative emotions affect your psychological health.
Many people find that exercise wards off feelings of depression due to the feel-good endorphins that are released. But individuals who over exercise in an addictive manner may find that exercising feeds into their depression and worsens their mood, especially when they cannot find time to work out.
When you are constantly looking for time to spend at the gym, engage in sports, go for a long run or take a strenuous bike ride, you are spending less time doing things you once enjoyed. If hobbies, going out with friends and spending time with loved ones has taken a back seat to your need for physical exercise, chances are an addiction is developing or has already developed.
A good friend or family member may call you out on your need to over exercise. This confrontation may cause a lot of conflict, denial, and anger on your part, especially if you don’t believe there is a problem or if you aren’t ready to do anything about it.
Perhaps you believe that you or someone you care about has an addiction to exercise. How can you tell whether you are just trying to be in as good physical shape as possible or whether a dangerous tendency has taken hold?
Consider the following signs and symptoms that are often associated with a potentially dangerous addiction to exercise:
Even if you’ve engaged in your exercise of choice for many consecutive days, you feel depressed, irritated, or anxious when you miss out on one exercise session.
If you work out even though you’re feeling sick, have an injury or are just plain exhausted, this is a warning sign of an addiction to exercise.
Withdrawing from uncomfortable feelings or certain life situations by going to the gym daily for hours at a time is not healthy. A better way of dealing with difficulties would be to seek out a therapist to talk about difficulties rather than risk injury or add to your stress in this way.
If you are spending more time exercising than being with your significant other or than being social with friends, you may have a problem. People who are addicted to exercising tend to withdraw from others so they can indulge in their unhealthy behaviors.
Perhaps you’ve missed several deadlines at work, are coming in late so you can fit in a workout, or are missing important family obligations to go to the gym. These are all symptoms of exercise addiction.
Nothing makes you as happy lately as when you’ve just completed a great physical routine or when you love the way your body looks on a certain day. Hobbies and interests you once enjoyed no longer matter as much to you.
You find that you have to work out harder and longer to continue experiencing those feel-good psychological effects. You might extend your exercise sessions by adding on reps when working out with weights or run home after a rigorous sports game.
You realize that you have a problem with obsessively exercising, so you engage in some of your workout sessions secretly, without letting your loved ones or good friends know what you’re really doing when you say you’re working late or have a doctor’s appointment.
Exercise is generally a good thing for most people. But like most things in life, exercise is best when done in moderation. Because people tend to believe in only the physical and psychological benefits that go along with exercise, some myths have been built up around those who over exercise.
Truth: Compulsive exercising has negative consequences, much like other addictions.
There’s a misconception about exercising too much. The thought is that having an addiction to exercise is a good thing due to its outward benefits (losing weight, gaining muscle, etc.). However, when a person depends upon their exercise routine for emotional and psychological reasons, a line has been crossed into the realm of addiction.
Truth: Exercise addiction is related to negative feelings and stress, both unrelated to weight issues.
Although someone who over exercises will probably experience weight loss, those losses will not be healthy for them in the long run. The unhealthy coping activities that are defined by exercise addiction can promote self-views that are unbalanced.
Underlying mental health conditions such as anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and certain personality traits can contribute to the formation of exercise addiction.
Truth: Over exercising is not healthy and is, in fact, dangerous.
Regular exercise in moderation is excellent for health. Extreme exercising is not. This is because over exercising can cause injuries, pain, anxiety, depression, and conflict in family and social lives.
Truth: Injuries related to exercising will set you back and cause possibly permanent damage.
Someone who suffers from an exercise addiction will continue to work out or engage in rigorous sports despite having pain or an injury. Instead of getting the suggested amount of time needed to recover, a person with an exercise addiction will continue to exercise, often leading to disastrous results.
A person addicted to exercise feels that working out gives them a sense of control in their life while ignoring the body’s normal signs to take a break.
Truth: Regularly exercising is more important than working out for long periods.
Consistently exercising regularly is more of a key to wellness than the time you spend working out. Taking a 30-minute walk four to five times a week is healthier for you in many ways than daily visits to the gym for hours at a time. This is especially true when those workouts occur to the exclusion of doing other enjoyable things in life, like spending time with friends and family.
When an exercise addiction co-occurs with an eating disorder or another mental health issue, the challenges are increased substantially. About 39-48% of people who have an eating disorder also suffer from an exercise addiction.6 Up to 25% of people suffering from one addiction have an additional addiction with which they must deal with. People with perfectionist tendencies or those who suffer from low self-esteem are also at risk for over exercising.
People who are dealing with other addictions are at risk for exercise addiction. A person suffering from an exercise addiction may also be coping with substance abuse. Someone who is trying to meet fitness goals that are not realistic may overuse performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. Others may engage in compulsive behaviors, like abusing alcohol or drugs, much in the same way as their over exercising behaviors.
Persons suffering from an exercise addiction have many of the same symptoms that accompany other types of addiction. They will experience cravings to work out and need more time and effort exercising over time to achieve the same “high” they used to feel. Other typical symptoms of addiction that also relate to over exercising are withdrawing from hobbies, interests, and people that once provided enjoyment and security. These are all hallmark symptoms of addiction of many different types.
Feelings of depression, anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia will often appear. Injuries resulting from over exercising at high intensities lead to pain that might be ignored to continue engaging in the addiction.
Treatment for recovery from exercise addiction is available, though it can be complicated. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not officially recognize exercise addiction as a mental health disorder. There is no illegal substance usually involved in exercise addiction, as this is primarily a behavioral addiction.
The most important step in recovery from exercise addiction is for a person to acknowledge that they have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Then, strategies for changing the unhealthy behaviors that involve over exercising can be laid out and followed, such as:
Realistic fitness goals need to be defined.
Psychological counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy help a person better understand the reasons behind his or her behaviors and encourage healthier ways to cope with emotions. The triggers that lead to excessive exercise and skills to teach avoidance are learned and taught in recovery.
Group therapy with others who are also addicted to exercise can help with self-awareness and methods for dealing with triggers.
Healing activities to help engage, heal, and interrupt the problem behaviors include artwork, singing, gardening, writing, and dancing, to name a few.
For those who are dealing with a dual diagnosis (exercise addiction with a co-occurring mental health or substance use disorder), recovery treatment in an in-patient residential facility may be necessary.
The recovery process for exercise addiction takes much longer than the actual treatment program. It involves hard work and time to make lifestyle changes that will lead to long-lasting recovery.