We live in a health-conscious society where we’re told over and over how important exercise is to our overall wellbeing. Those endless #gethealthy and #personalbest posts on social media posts with people showing off their gym-honed bodies don’t help either.
However, exercise addiction can often go under the radar because it isn’t officially listed as a disorder. As Chris Hall, a nutritionist and personal trainer and founder of Hall Training Systems, puts it: “Exercise addiction isn’t currently recognised as an illness but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a real problem – it can have severe physical and mental effects.”
But could over-exercising be a sign of addiction? Celebrities like Lucy Mecklenburgh have spoken about their battle with the obsession with fitness, but how do you know if you’ve overstepped the mark?
Here are the signs to look out for.
1.You lie about how many times you visit the gym
“You would be likely to turn down social events to exercise, or even skip work,” says Hall. “As the individual spends more and more time on their exercise, their relationships can begin to suffer.
“It’s not uncommon for individuals to lie about their activity to hide how much they are exercising, and begin to alter their thinking habits to justify their workouts.”
2. You exercise to relieve stress
Fitness blogger Carrie Arnold has written candidly about how workouts and gyms dominated her life.
“I started exercising regularly when I entered college,” she wrote on Psychology Today. “My initial goal was fitness and stress relief – nothing to do with weight loss. As the stresses of college began to pile up, exercise provided one of my only ways to relieve the pressure.
“I didn’t cross the line into exercise addiction until the onset of my eating disorder. If I ended up eating ‘extra’, well, I also felt compelled to exercise to relieve the anxiety I had over those few extra calories.”
Hall explains: “There is a strong link with addictive disorders. Exercise addiction is most often seen in those who suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, or those who are obsessed with a healthy diet. It is also common in those who suffer from a body image disorder, such as body dysmorphia.”
3. You judge your day as good (or bad) depending on whether you’ve exercised
Basically, your life depends on exercise. And know one knows this better than Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, who has written extensively on exercise addiction and developed the Exercise Addiction Inventory.
“Addicts do not simply exercise to experience the joy of it,” he says. “It is rather to escape negative, unpleasant feelings and everyday difficulties.”
4. You get frustrated if you miss the gym
“Over-exercising plays havoc with hormone balances, especially when it comes to the testosterone:cortisol ratio, says Hall. “When you are exercising too much, testosterone drops while cortisol increases. This causes muscle wastage, a plateau in fat loss and even a drop in libido.
“Having testosterone suppressed in favour of cortisol over the long term can have negative impacts on our health and mood. Sleep quality suffers, and you become irritable and short tempered.”
5. In fact, your mood is essentially dominated by exercise
“Mood modification is a key factor among the symptoms of exercise addiction and suggests there is a self-medication aspect of exercise that facilitates the distinction between normal and abnormal exercise,” says Griffiths. “Empirical research has demonstrated that addicted exercisers have to exercise in order to avoid negative feelings or withdrawal.
“The individual’s exercise may become a chore that has to be fulfilled, or otherwise an unwanted event would occur – such as the inability to cope with stress, or gaining weight or becoming moody. So the motive behind that behaviour acts as a negative reinforcement.”
6. You still don’t feel healthy despite your scrupulous fitness regime
“What starts off as a desire to be physically fit can rapidly spiral out of control as people feel the need to exercise more intensely and frequently to speed up their results,” says Hall.
“Although sufferers may appear to be super-healthy from the outside, their behaviour is likely to be a mask for serious underlying psychological issues.”
7. You exercise… even when you are ill
“Sufferers are likely to try and exercise through illness or injury because they don’t feel able to rest, and to exercise alone, so that nobody else’s wishes or performance can get in the way of what they hope to achieve in their session,” says Hall.
“Feeling anxious when you are unable to exercise, or when your regime gets disrupted, is another important sign to look out for.”
8. You get mad when social commitments interfere with your gym time
“The most obvious symptom of addiction is an all-consuming obsession with exercise,” says Hall.
“You may notice that you are unable to concentrate on daily tasks because you are planning how and when you will next exercise.”
9. You feel depressed and isolated
“Just like an anorexic would become preoccupied with thoughts of food, somebody suffering from exercise addiction would become preoccupied with their exercise regime and working out how many calories they’d burned,” says Hall.
“It is unlikely they would enjoy the exercise they were doing, instead they are probably driven to avoid the guilt they’d feel if they didn’t exercise enough or properly. Just like any addictive behaviour, this can become incredibly isolating.”
10. You feel worse instead of better after your exercise
“Although exercise in moderation has numerous positive effects on the body, taking it too far can cause damage,” says Hall.
“Compulsive exercisers are at increased risk of stress fractures, joint issues, muscle sprains and tears, and likely to lose important muscle mass and body fat. Women risk upsetting, or even preventing, their menstrual cycle, which can impact on fertility.”
11. You feel weak and exhausted
“Athletic performance or strength may start to plateau or fall off,” says Hall. “Muscle aches, often known as DOMS, could set in. Feeling constantly exhausted, losing weight, and suffering from headaches are also signs to look out for.
“Some research suggests that excessive exercise can even damage the heart and reduce bone density. These are long-term changes that can be difficult to reverse.”
12. You work out to make up for overeating (or just eating)
“The line becomes more complicated when exercise is used to control body fat or weight,” says Hall.
“If you are using exercise to burn excess calories, or when you feel you’ve eaten too much, then this could be a sign that you are suffering from an eating disorder.”
What to do:
“The first step in recovery is admitting that there is a problem,” says Hall. “This is a difficult process, and its importance should never be underestimated. The most important tool is self-control. Once the sufferer has accepted they have a problem, they must take steps to reduce the intensity and frequency of their workouts.
“Avoiding places they often work out can help so rather than the usual trip to the gym they may do some light stretching in a different environment, like their home – until they can reduce exercise levels back to normal.
“It’s also important to address negative and irrational thought patterns. If part of you says you’ll be worthless if you skip your gym session, argue back – make a list of all the reasons why you matter.”
The need for awareness:
“It is important to raise awareness of potential harm within the population of regular exercisers,” says Griffiths.
“Some psychologists claim that individuals with exercise addiction have a poor understanding of the negative health consequences of excessive exercising, of the mechanism of exercise adaptation, and the need for rest between exercise sessions. The use of education may be an effective step in the prevention and treatment of exercise addiction.
“Based on research carried out internationally, we believe that exercise addiction should be classified within the category of behavioural addictions.”