Exercise Addiction is an Unhealthy Obsession

Exercise can become an unhealthy addiction and a practice that's used to escape other problems.
Exercise Addiction is an Unhealthy Obsession

Last update: 18 August, 2021

Is it possible to get addicted to physical exercise? Everything seems to indicate that the answer is yes. It happens when exercising becomes the center of a person’s life. Furthermore, they lose control over other areas of their life because of the “need” to play sports in order to feel good. This is exercise addiction.

In these cases, people often use sport as an “escape route” from other problems in their lives. That’s because exercising makes them feel good. Therefore, they end up using exercise as a means of regulating themselves emotionally. Others might carry out physical exercise due to the need for constant stimulation, feelings of insecurity, or other reasons.

Physical exercise addiction can end up leading to muscle dysmorphia. This is a psychological disorder that involves a distortion of body image.

In this article, we find out what exercise addiction consists of, and its main symptoms, causes, and consequences.

Exercise addiction

Addiction to physical exercise is a behavioral addiction. David González-Cutre, a researcher at the Faculty of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences at the University of Elche (Spain) explains that addiction to physical exercise is a relatively recent phenomenon. For this reason, there’s still little data available on the subject.

According to González, as a result of this “new” disorder, the injuries that reach primary care due to exercise addiction have increased. In addition, he points out that addiction to physical exercise may be either primary or secondary. It’s primary when sport itself generates the addiction. On the other hand, it’s secondary, when it derives from another condition (for example, an eating disorder).

This disorder isn’t currently included in the DSM-5 ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ). However, its future inclusion is being studied.

Woman running outdoors

Endorphin release

During exercise, people release large amounts of endorphins. This makes them want to repeat the action as it generates feelings of well-being and satisfaction.

We should mention that playing sports isn’t bad. On the contrary, it’s extremely healthy. However, it’s when people become addicted to it, that it can end up causing discomfort and, consequently, prove harmful.

To become addicted to something or someone implies losing control over a situation. Furthermore you feel that you “need” whatever you’re addicted to in order to live or generally be “okay”. However, this isn’t the case. 

Symptoms of exercise addiction

When a person becomes addicted to physical exercise, they present a set of symptoms or behaviors. For example, they adopt a very specific lifestyle, which includes certain sports and exercise routines (and often also diets). These routines are frequently obsessive and exaggerated. Furthermore, the person feels bad if they don’t stick to their “established plan.”

In addition, they might eat an unlimited amount of proteins and carbohydrates, especially in cases of muscle dysmorphia. They might also take steroids. These are substances that stimulate musculoskeletal growth and the development of male sexual traits.

However, there’s a difference between exercise addiction and muscle dysmorphia. Exercise addiction is accompanied by an obsession to eat healthily or to follow diets to either gain or lose muscle mass. In the case of muscle dysmorphia, the obsession is always to gain muscle mass.

Causes of exercise addiction

Why do people become addicted to exercise? There are various causes:

  • The need to “disconnect” from a certain problem. They see exercise as an escape route.
  • The search for sensations to “cover-up” some other difficulty.
  • An obsession for the physical.
  • Insecurities
  • The need for constant stimulation. They achieve this through the endorphins released by exercise.

In relation to the last cause, we know that the practice of physical exercise stimulates the release of endorphins. These substances relate to processes of pleasure and satisfaction. However, when a person does a lot of exercise, the body may end up “getting used to” these sensations. Therefore, in the long run, it ends up “needing” them.

On the other hand, when endorphins are released, they produce an analgesic response. This calms unpleasant feelings and enhances well-being. That’s why behaviors in which endorphins are released are more likely to generate addiction. This is precisely the case in exercise addiction.

Other explanations: positive reinforcement and activation

Another explanatory hypothesis of the addiction to physical exercise is the one that has to do with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. According to this hypothesis, people who practice physical exercise tend to increase its level in order to reach the full state of activation of this system.

Another possible explanation is related to the increase in temperature when exercising. In this case, exercise generates a state of relaxation and a decrease in anxiety. Over time, people want to feel these sensations of well-being again. For this reason, it becomes a factor in maintaining their addiction to exercise.

Muscle dysmorphia

Sports addiction can lead (although not always) to muscle dysmorphia (also known as the Adonis complex). This disorder is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with gaining muscle mass. Furthermore, sufferers experience a distorted image of their body.

However, it’s important to differentiate exercise addiction from muscle dysmorphia. Although many times they may be related, they’re not exactly the same. In fact, muscle dysmorphia is a fairly common disorder among bodybuilders.

Man with addiction to physical exercise consuming substances

When should professional help be sought?

People should seek professional help if the practice of exercise is interfering in their daily life. Or, if they experience the feeling of not being in control. For instance, they may feel a great need to exercise in order to be healthy. In addition, if they don’t exercise, they feel extremely uncomfortable and their mood is negatively affected.

However, each individual has to decide for themselves when and how to ask for help. The most important thing is to listen to what their body and mind are trying to tell them.

“Happiness lies, first of all, in health”.

-George William Curtis-

 



  • Barbero, J.I. (1988). La cultura de consumo, el cuerpo y la educación física. Revista Educación Física y Deporte, 20(1).
  • Gadea, S. (2006). La adicción al ejercicio se convierte en enfermedad que combina problemas psicológicos. Director técnico de medicina deportiva y cultura física del IMSS.