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Exercise Addiction: Healthy Habit or Obsession?

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Exercise Addiction: Healthy Habit or Obsession?
Exercise is a good thing, but working out too much can cause serious physical and emotional problems.

Good physical fitness doesn’t just happen — it requires a commitment to healthy eating and regular exercise. But when does it go too far? Sometimes, that commitment to exercise can turn into an addiction.

Addictions are marked by some standard signs, a few of which can be extended to exercise:

Withdrawal symptoms, such as unusual irritability, when you cannot engage in the activity

Tolerance, meaning you need increasing amounts of the substance or behavior over time

Significant conflicts in your life, such as missing work or avoiding other responsibilities, caused by the compulsion to engage in the addictive behavior
Committed, non-addicted fitness enthusiasts view exercise as an important element of their lives — but not the central or most important part. Someone with an addiction to exercise is likely to experience physical, financial, and social problems as a result of the behavior, whereas a committed exerciser will not exercise to the point where it interferes with aspects of his or her life.

Is Exercise a Positive Addiction?

Some researchers have called an addiction to exercise a “positive addiction” because it usually contributes to overall fitness, rather than other addictions such as drinking, drug use, gambling, and smoking. Exercise addicts, for instance, smoke less than other groups of people.

Most people feel good when they exercise, and the reasons are many. Exercise has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol, regulating stress responses, while increasing levels of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that make people feel better. Exercise can also help improve sleep habits and elimination, while helping to prevent disease and other health problems. It also alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Over-Exercising Can Cause Emotional and Physical Harm

But as is true with any addiction, obsessive behavior typically causes the addict to withdraw from relationships or damage relationships. Also, although exercise offers many positive effects, an addiction to exercise can be detrimental to overall fitness.

Physical dangers of exercise addiction that are harmful to your wellbeing include:

The risk of dehydration
An increased tendency to suffer from insomnia
Sports injuries such as shin splints, broken bones, cartilage, and ligament damage
An increased risk of menstrual abnormalities in women
How Does an Addiction to Exercise Develop?

Several factors may contribute to exercise addiction. The addiction may be driven by an eating disorder, low self-esteem, or distorted body image. Compulsive exercise habits are often present in people who have anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Some people may crave the feeling they get from prolonged rhythmic exercise, which can activate the body’s central opioid systems and regulate stress responses in the body.

Ironically, exercise can also provide therapeutic benefits in the treatment of addiction, depression, and anorexia nervosa — it all depends on the amount.

The bottom line? If your exercise routine causes more frustrations in your life than it does positive fitness benefits, consider talking to your doctor or adjusting your workout habits to evaluate any potentially addictive behavior.

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