Can You Become Addicted to Exercise?

Have you ever noticed an avid exerciser at your local gym — someone who is always running on the treadmill for long lengths of time or hovering around the weight room well after others have showered and called it a day. Perhaps you’ve even felt lazy and out of shape by comparison, and have admired this person’s dedication and motivation. But did you ever stop to wonder whether this person’s commitment to exercise might have turned into an addiction?

Recent research is revealing that there is a point at which too much exercise may have detrimental physical and psychological health effects and turn into an addiction. How can you tell if someone may be addicted to exercise?

People addicted to exercise continue to keep going despite injuries, mental issues, social obligations, and physical exhaustion. They may even watch their careers crumble, and their family and friends drift away because exercise is their top priority. In other words, physical activity engulfs an exercise addict’s personal, professional, and social life, and is experienced by the addict as difficult to control or reduce in frequency — even in the face of illness or injury.

It’s difficult to separate healthy exercise from an addiction. A lot of people with a healthy attitude towards exercise choose to become personal trainers, work at a gym, run marathons, and even ultra-marathons. It’s when exercise becomes all consuming — when you start losing friends, forgoing social activities or reneging work opportunities — that your workout schedule becomes cause for concern. For most of us exercise is great for the body, the soul, and the mind. But for a limited number, it can turn into an addiction.

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What do you think? Let us know your thoughts below.

Comments (4) Add yours ↓
  1. Simon van rij Dr

    Over exercising in the setting of unrealistic body image is an increasing problem facing males as highlighted in this recent article in time

    Not only does it lead to over exercising but also to substance abuse and mental health issues.

    We need to discuss with our patients (and ourselves) what the benefits of exercise are but not over sell or drive the appearance benefits which may or may not be realised

    October 1, 2017 Reply
  2. JohnAxford Professor

    Missing your daily exercise due to work commitments etc is a healthy response and perhaps the body’s way in which you are reminded to continue to do something good for your physiology. When exercise becomes an obsession then it is definitely not so good as harm may result e.g. extreme weight loss, osteoporosis, infertility and MSK injuries.

    October 2, 2017 Reply
  3. Mike Kirby professor

    Exercise addiction usually starts with a desire for physical fitness, and these men may present in primary care with strain injuries etc

    An eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, may lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise. A body dysmorphic disorder, or body image disorder, may also cause exercise addiction.
    Exercise addicts display traits similar to those with which we are familiar, including
    obsessing over the behaviour
    engaging in exercise even though it’s causing physical harm, joints, strains etc is a warning sign
    engaging in the behaviour despite wanting to stop is also a red flag
    exercising in secret is also worth enquiring about.
    Increased fitness obsession and decreased social activity may suggest a risk of exercise addiction.
    A good idea is to advise a journal of workout routines and social activities to see what the balance is
    Once suspected, expert advice is essential. advice is to avoid drugs, alcohol, smoking, caffeine, and other substances that can be addictive and get help.

    October 4, 2017 Reply
  4. Keith Bush Dr


    In the last century, there was huge public concern about drug addiction and indeed that remains the case today with for instance some 70,000 people dying every year in the USA as a consequence of opioid overdoses. However, we now have sex addiction and exercise addiction and I suppose we always had alcoholics and workaholics. Will exercise-aholics be next?

    Most authorities would agree that a certain amount of exercise in conjunction with an appropriate diet greatly contributes to a healthy body and mind and a longer life. This is opposed to under exercise and over eating which unfortunately has afflicted a huge section of the community over at least the last half century with urbanisation and fast food. We thus have at least two generations of which a huge percentage are overweight, have fatty liver disease or type 2 diabetes which is at pandemic levels. These unfortunate people are susceptible to a multitude of comorbidities. For instance, the British Medical Journal alludes to a recent analysis of data from 22,564 people. The risk of developing depression was 44% lower in people who exercised for one or two hours a week than in people who had no regular physical activity!

    On the other hand, when marathon running caught the imagination of the masses in the 1980’s, it is interesting to note that if the recreational marathon runner exceeded more than 40 miles of training per week, they achieved little more in performance but exposed themselves to an exponential increase of injuries related to increased training. I suppose that those who did not accept their limitations and continued to train excessively with resultant detrimental impact to work, family and social commitments, could be classified as exercise addicts. On the other hand, an elite marathon runner training at 80 miles a week may still be under training towards achieving their optimum performance and therefore not classifiable as an addict.

    Nevertheless, all professional athletes such as footballers, rugby players and those striving for Olympic and world championship glory, make huge sacrifices to both social and family life in order to achieve their goals. Furthermore, their careers are relatively short lived and their level of training and commitment often results in long term injuries which plague them for the rest of their lives for instance requiring early joint replacement. Are they exercise addicts or has the system sucked them in to what is considered the norm in their discipline but without fully enlightening them about the longer term consequences.

    Having said all this, for those of us who have enjoyed sport throughout our lives, what a fundamental part of our life it can be. The exhilaration of winning a race, standing on the podium or overcoming the opponent because one is secure in having prepared and trained thoroughly for the event which inevitably requires significant sacrifice. Just participating in both training and competing at one’s optimum performance can be very fulfilling and satisfying leaving one at peace with oneself which of course is contributed to by exercise increasing our own endorphin levels. Are we therefore just sports junkies after all? No, a successful life is about seeing the big picture and having insight into the pros and cons of what we do in order to balance them appropriately.

    October 9, 2017 Reply

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