I don’t need to argue that exercise is important for health. However, more isn’t always better. There can be a loss of control over exercise or the compulsive need for a high volume of exercise. At this point, exercise is no longer beneficial for health, but rather detrimental. This is often referred to as exercise addiction or exercise dependence. The amount or intensity of exercise is not a good indicator of exercise addiction. Rather, criteria for dependence is based on the following:
- Tolerance: Increasing the amount of exercise in order to get a “buzz” or sense of accomplishment
- Withdrawal: Without exercise, negative feelings like anxiety, irritability or restlessness are experienced
- Lack of control: Being unsuccessful in trying to stop or reduce the amount exercise
- Intention effects: Going above the intended amount of time devoted to exercise
- Time: a great deal of time spent preparing, engaging and recovering from exercise
- Reduction in other activities: Social, work or recreational activities occur less often or are stopped all together
- Continuance: Continuing to exercise despite knowing the activity is creating physical, psychological and/or recreational problems
Exercise addiction needs to be distinguished from exercise that occurs at a high frequency, such as an athlete training for the Olympics. For instance, an elite athlete will obviously spend a great deal of time exercising, and reduce the amount of time spent doing other activities. They would also experience negative feelings if they were injured and had to stop training. However, most are probably not going to alter the training plan detailed by their coach (i.e. running 16 km instead of 10 km) or put themselves in harms way to exercise (i.e. running in a blizzard or thunderstorm). These examples are missing the intention effects and continuance components of dependence.
The Exercise Addiction Inventory was created to screen those at high risk for exercise addiction. Take the test for yourself to see how you score. For each of the following questions, answer with a score of 1-5 where:
1= strongly disagree, 2= disagree, 3= neither agree nor disagree, 4= agree, 5= strongly agree
- Exercise is the most important thing in my life.
- Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or partner about the amount of exercise I do.
- I use exercise as a way of changing my mood.
- Over time, I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.
- If I have to miss an exercise session, I feel moody and irritable.
- If I cut down the amount of exercise I do, and then start again, I always end up exercising as often as I did before.
Add up your score. If you scored 6-23 then you’re at a low risk of exercise addiction, if you scored 24-30, then you’re at a high risk of exercise addiction.
Those with exercise addiction are likely aware of the negative consequences of engaging in exercise, but choose to ignore the consequences. For instance, missing out on a social event, like a family member’s birthday party, to exercise despite knowing relationships will be ruined. The primary motivation for exercise is probably not the exercise in itself, but rather exercise is likely being used to escape a negative feeling. Exercise addiction is associated with higher ratings of depression, emotional stress and anxiety.
If any of this resonates with you, or you scored high risk for exercise addiction, then I would encourage you to seek professional help. Usually, a clinician who specializes in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is recommended. However, exercise addiction can occur as the result of another psychological condition. The most common co-disorder is an eating disorder. In this case, seeking help for treating the eating disorder should be the primary focus.
You’ve probably read quotes like: “you’ll never regret a workout” or “the only bad run is the one you didn’t do.” Hopefully, after reading this blog, you’ll understand why I hate quotes like these. They are untrue and misleading. Workouts that could potentially harm your health or take away from other valuable areas of your life should be regretted.