What is exercise addiction? And is it bad for you?
Do you worry about how much exercise you're getting? If you find that it's consuming your thoughts more than it should, you may have an addiction to exercise which could be affecting your mental health.
What is exercise addiction?
The best definition we have for exercise addiction is “an insatiable craving for physical activity which compromises their physical and/or mental health”. Some of the symptoms we have found to associate with the uncontrollable need for exercise: dominates their thinking, cravings, breakdown of social behaviours, mood modification, growing tolerance to exercise, withdrawal symptoms, relapse and conflicts with those close to them.
However, there are two types of exercise addiction:
Primary exercise addiction
Putting it simply, these type of exercise addicts use exercise as a direct coping mechanism for issues in their life. There is such a thing known as “runners high”. When we exercise we get the release of endorphins which give us a feel-good factor and can be more or less prevalent in different people. Meaning this type of addiction is very similar to substance addiction (i.e. drugs, alcohol), using the substance/exercise to make you “high”.
Exercise also works as a distraction. To primary exercise addicts, using exercise to distract them from i.e. negative thoughts, mental pain, physical pain, etc.
Secondary exercise addiction
This addiction stems from an overwhelming need for thinness or to gain muscle mass. We call these 'Thinspiration' and 'Fitspiration', which the media often plague us with; showing images of someone who is unrealistically thin (usually women) or people who are unrealistically muscular (usually men).
So secondary exercise addicts use exercise as a tool to grow thin or muscular from dissatisfaction with their own body. It's important to be aware that this may also lead to, or be the result of other mental health issues such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
Studies have found exercise addicts are often associated with body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with body weight, perfectionism, anxiety and OCD. But if we really want to understand exercise addiction, then we have to look at these two studies involving rats, which tell us everything we need to know about all addictions:
The first study involved simply rats in cages with two different water bottles. One water bottle would have normal water; the other water bottle would have drugged water with either heroin or cocaine. And nearly all the rats would just drink the drugged water and end up killing themselves.
A scary fact of the power of drugs and addiction? Not so much!
A brilliant man called Professor Alexander came along and realised that all these rats were just in empty cages, on their own; of course they were going to have the drugged water. So he recreated the same study with the normal water and the drugged water, but instead of keeping them in an empty cage, he created essentially rat heaven. He called it “Rat Park” where rats were able to be with other rats, have things to play with, have a much larger area to live in, etc. And the amazing thing is, nearly all the rats would have the normal water and wouldn’t touch the drugged water.
This tells us that exercise addiction is not about the exercise that makes you an addict; it is about our lives and our environment; how happy we are.
Is exercise addiction bad for us?
To answer this question simply, yes. An addiction to exercise can lead to a weakened immune system, dehydration, hyperthermia and putting yourself at greater risk of injury and then continuing to exercise through the injury. These are the physical dangers of exercise addiction.
From a mental perspective, it can negatively affect your social life and affect your relationships. But the main way it is bad for us mentally is that it covers up our underlying issues, whether it be being unhappy with our own bodies or using exercise excessively as a coping mechanism for issues going on in your life.
Exercise is good though?!
I don't want this article to deter any of you away from doing exercise! Exercise is fantastically healthy for us, physically and mentally. Aerobic fitness has been associated with longer life expectancy, decreased risk of heart disease and a stronger immune system.
Regular exercise is also associated with being more confident with your body image. So you can use exercise to build muscle or to lose weight, just not to reach unrealistic and unhealthy goals. Regular exercise has been shown to improve emotional resilience to life's stresses and strains; it can even be used as a fantastic tool to recover from mental illness. Exercise can even help improve your social life, joining exercise classes for example.
What have we learnt from this?
We have learnt about what exercise addiction is and that it is a serious but complicated issue. Exercise is very important for our health and wellbeing, but to understand who may be an exercise addict, it is the mind-set behind the exercise, not the amount of exercise itself that is the issue; exercise being used as a tool for unhealthy purposes.
If you feel you or someone you know may suffer from exercise addiction, I urge you to seek treatment. Hypnotherapy can help by changing the patterns of thinking that are causing unhealthy thoughts. A professional hypnotherapist can provide you with the support and guidance you need to start enjoying exercise again - in a healthy way. Many therapists will offer a free consultation so you can test the water and find someone you feel connected with. The online search tool on Hypnotherapy Directory will help you find a hypnotherapist specialising in a specific area of concern.