Scroll through your Instagram or Facebook feed and you’re likely to see someone posting a sweaty, post-workout pic or bragging about how they can barely walk after a tough leg day. Sometimes in the noisy social media world it seems like a competition as to who can work out hardest, longest and with the most intensity.
And why not? Fitness certainly has many benefits, ranging from weight loss to stress relief. If a little bit is a good thing, more must certainly be better. But what if working out becomes less of a hobby and more of an obsession, or takes over a person’s life? Is it possible to be addicted to exercise?
There isn’t currently a mental health diagnosis for exercise addiction, but it is real, according to Dr. Chelsi Day, a clinical and sport psychologist.
“A very basic definition would be a pattern of exercise in which thoughts of exercise become obsessive; the person finds that the only way to relieve the obsession is to exercise; and it causes dysfunction in their life,” she said.
One sign a person may have a problem, according to Day, is if working out starts to interfere with other aspects of her life, such as work or relationships.
“If working out or researching exercise consumes your thoughts or your time, it’s likely a problem.”
Day said the key to identifying addiction lies in how people react when they are unable to exercise. Being upset at an extended time off due to injury is one thing, but if missing one or two days of workouts causes panic, stress or anxiety, that’s a warning sign.
“We are constantly inundated with anti-fat messages and pressures to be healthier and more fit … we are more susceptible than ever to get sucked into
an addictive cycle with our exercise.”
Other potential red flags: if a person needs to exercise to feel happy, becomes agitated when workout plans change, insists on training despite an injury and against medical advice or reduces their social activity to make time for more exercise.
While fitness may seem like a healthier addiction than something like alcohol or cigarettes, there are still dangers. Physically, it can cause injuries, fatigue, dehydration and even heart damage.
Mentally, an unhealthy obsession with exercise can lead to eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
There’s no hard evidence on the prevalence of exercise addiction, but Day suspected it’s becoming more common, especially among young women.
“We are constantly inundated with anti-fat messages and pressures to be healthier and more fit … we are more susceptible than ever to get sucked into an addictive cycle with our exercise.”
If you think you may have exercise addiction, Day recommended trying to cut back, even if the thought of doing so is stressful.
“When you reduce exercise and are feeling anxious about it, try engaging in a relaxation exercise until the anxiety is reduced without giving in and exercising.”
Day said seeking the help of a qualified mental health provider may be the most beneficial, and it increases the likelihood of successfully overcoming the problem.
“It’s important to remember moderation is key to everything in life,” she said. “We need water to survive, but drinking too much water can kill you. In the same way, exercise is imperative to health, but too much can kill you.”