How to tell if you have an exercise addiction

In a world that celebrates fitness and being slim, there is a lot of pressure to hit the gym frequently, and hit it hard.

But when does a positive, healthy habit tip over into something more problematic, and potentially dangerous?

Exercise addiction is becoming a major concern among fitness experts and health specialists. 

A recent study found that as many as 7% of people who exercise regularly are at risk of developing exercise addiction. However, we can’t be sure how accurate these numbers are as there’s currently no universally accepted diagnostic criteria for exercise addiction.

Unlike many other addictive behaviours, we are constantly encouraged to exercise more, as working up a sweat is known to improve our physical and mental health. Despite this, it’s actually very possible to create an unhealthy, compulsive relationship with exercise and fitness. 

It can be hard to know how much exercise is too much, without knowing the individual circumstances surrounding each person, but there are some common signs to look out for. 

We asked the specialists from Delamere Health to uncover the warning signs.

What is exercise addiction? 

Getting regular exercise is an important part of staying healthy. Exercise is linked to positive health benefits such as increased energy, greater quality sleep, reduced stress, a boost in happy hormones, and the reduction of heart disease risk. However, some people feel compelled to exercise and are unable to stop, even when they experience pain or injury. 

‘While there are many physical and psychological benefits of exercise, when endured at high levels, it can generate negative effects, including an unhealthy addiction,’ say Delamere Health specialists. 

‘Exercise addiction is described as an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise. For many individuals, it’s often the outcome of body image disorders and eating disorders. 

‘Although it’s not classified as a mental health disorder, exercise addiction carries similar emotional effects as other addictions, for example, obsessive behaviour, continuing despite physical harm and wanting to stop, engaging in secret behaviours, and denial of activities.’ 

What causes exercise addiction? 

The specialists say exercise addiction typically stems from people having a strong desire to improve their overall physical fitness and wellbeing. Those with body image problems, low self-esteem and limited self-confidence are generally at a higher risk as well. 

‘There is a strong correlation between an unhealthy relationship with exercise and eating disorders. Individuals who suffer from anorexia or bulimia, or other body image disorders can often have a destructive obsession with fitness and exercise.

‘In fact, research carried out by Brewerton discovered that nearly 40% of patients suffering from anorexia had also been displaying compulsive exercise behaviours.

‘When we exercise our bodies release endorphins and dopamine from the brain. When these hormones are released into our bodies, we experience happiness, relaxation, overall mood improvements, and lower symptoms of depression.

‘After someone stops exercising these feelings of joy often leave. Increasing the level of exercise to trigger a chemical release to reduce stress and improve mood is usually the way people gradually develop an exercise disorder.’ 

What are the key signs of exercise addiction? 

Keeping fit and active is a key part of maintaining health and happiness, but how do you know when too much of a good thing becomes bad? 

Despite there being no formal diagnosis of exercise addiction, there are still symptoms in association with the thoughts, emotions, behaviours of those who present with the disorder.

Here are the six key signs according to the specialists at Delamere Health:

If you’re worried about your relationship with exercise or food, make sure you speak to someone. Your GP would be a good place to start, but you can also contact specific mental health helplines and charities.

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