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Passion or Problem … exercise addiction

restday2I recently have been doing research into exercise addiction which is a very fine grey line between when a passion turns into a problem. Some very interesting reading to say the least which I would sum up very simply as having to do with mindset.

Exercise is regarded as a good and positive thing to do. We know that being active helps improve physical and mental well-being. We are well aware that exercise has a positive effect on our overall physical health with improved strength and stamina. We know that our attitudes and approaches to life are more positive and that we have less anxiety and depression.

Yet, when does the balance tip and exercise becomes a ‘bad’ thing? When does it become regarded as exercise addiction?

What is addiction?

According to Action on Addiction, a UK charity helping those individuals affected by addiction and their families, addiction is an all-consuming relationship with a substance or behaviour that is driven by a conscious or unconscious desire to feel something different, which results in a range of harmful consequences.

Addiction might be with drugs or alcohol, yet it might also be excessive or obsessive time on social media (how long do you spend on Facebook?), compulsive shopping, excessive work, gambling, sex, among many others behaviours. Basically, addiction is any behaviour which is done to change how someone feels.

In the case of exercise addiction, an addict continues to exercise to change how they feel despite advice to modify or alter what they are doing. How many people do you know have continued to train despite being injured? An exercise addict might even set bigger and bolder goals that require more training, thereby giving them a legitimate excuse to do even more exercise.

That being said, addiction is a complex issue that covers a broad spectrum and patterns of behaviour which negatively impacts on a person’s life. There are both physical and psychological sides to addictive behaviours.

On the physical side, the addictive behaviour affects the body’s chemistry and an individual can become physically dependent. In the case of exercise, the body produces endorphins which are the natural ‘feel good’ chemicals. On the psychological side, the mind is hooked into the pattern of behaviour which causes the person to mentally crave and desire to achieve that ‘feel good’ feeling again. Plus, if they do not get their ‘fix’, they might experience symptoms of withdrawal including depression and irritability. The thought of not doing exercise sometimes triggers feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression which also impacts on their self-esteem and confidence levels.

Are you at risk?

There are several indicators whether a behaviour, like exercise addiction, might be viewed as an addiction.

The first few questions to could ask yourself is … do you think you might have a problem with excessive exercise? Do you have a sense that what you are doing is excessive or obsessive? Do you tend to justify or feel the need to explain the amount of exercise you do? Is your exercise schedule and routine negatively impacting on other areas in your life?

Here are a few more questions to help you explore further whether you might be leaning towards an unhealthy approach and attitude to exercise:

  1. Tolerance: Do you have a high tolerance for what you do? Has this increased over time? Are the exercise sessions longer than originally intended?
  2. Withdrawal: Do you experience anxiety or irritability when you are unable to do your exercise?
  3. Limited control: Do you have a persistent desire to train and find it difficult to forgo a training session? Have you tried reducing the number of sessions or limiting the time training without great success?
  4. Negative consequences: Have you continued to exercise while being injured or against the advice of a professional?
  5. Neglected or postponed activities: Do you spend significant amounts of time exercising which has a detrimental or negative impact on other activities?

By answering yes to any of these questions does not necessarily mean that you are an addict. Yet, it might be worth exploring your attitude, approach and mind set which is driving you to exercise.

It must be pointed out that not everyone who trains excessively are considered addicts. Take for example professional athletes; they train many hours each day yet are not addicts. It is their job to be in peak physical and mental condition to perform and the difference is their attitude and approach to what they are doing.


So why do I say exercise passion versus addiction has to do with mindset? I see this is because the attitude and approach to exercise that makes the difference between a healthy approach to exercise and an unhealthy approach.

A healthy approach to exercise is about stretching one’s capabilities yet knowing that they are still good enough with whatever they do. An unhealthy approach is feelings of ‘never good enough’ and trying to prove something to others. So, if you recognize yourself having any or some of these behaviours, attitudes or approaches that are unhealthy, then I encourage you to take action.

Speak to a trusted friend, coach or professional who can help you understand what might be driving the behaviours and to come up with positive and healthy strategies.

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