What is Exercise Addiction?

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exercise addiction
Author Name: Beth Rush
Date: Monday February 20, 2023

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Exercise is known to be a great way to stay fit and healthy. Although sometimes, people can take it to a certain level where it does more harm than good. Exercise addiction can display similar traits to those with other addictions. Here is an overview of exercise addiction and what to look for in yourself or your loved ones. 

Exercise Addiction 

An unhealthy obsession with exercise andl fitness leads to exercise addiction. Some traits that may show up include: 

  • Obsessing over the behavior
  • Continuing behavior even when causing harm
  • Engaging even when not wanting to
  • Performing the behavior as a secret 

The release of chemicals in the nervous system makes the action feel like a reward. Apart if the addiction may be dependent on the pleasure you feel. Weight loss or other health conditions can occur when exercising too much. 


The neurotransmitters released while using drugs are the same as when you exercise: endorphins and dopamine cause feelings of joy. When exercise is over, they will fade away. You will want to keep triggering these feelings by exercising more. 

It usually starts with a wanting to get involved with fitness but can steam from other disorders. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia can lead to an unhealthy obsession with working out on top of the disorder. Other conditions like body dysmorphia and body image issues can spark the addiction. 


Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • The buzzed feeling after working out
  • Feeling withdrawal-like symptoms after long periods of inactivity
  • The uncontrollable desire to exercise 
  • Making time for exercise and reducing other activities because of it
  • Long periods of preparation and recovery from exercise
  • Can’t stick to a reduced exercise routine

Who is at Risk?

Many people feel pressure to stay fit for a variety of reasons. If you are overweight and are striving towards weight loss and unhealthy regime can cause exercise addiction. People with eating disorders and body image issues tend to use exercise in addition to their conditions or to help ease them.

People with a previous addiction to other things like alcohol and drugs may use exercise to fill the void and create a new obsession. Since the same chemicals are released, they seek their fix in another form. 

There is a timeline of phases that show how someone develops this addiction. Here are the four phases. 

  • Phase 1: Recreational exercise. When exercise is meant to increase health and fitness, you find pleasure in activity while improving your quality of life. 
  • Phase 2: At-risk exercise. When you increase the frequency and intensity of workouts, the main reason is to reduce stress and increase self-esteem. 
  • Phase 3: Problematic exercise. You begin to organize your life around exercise. Irritability and mood swings can come if the routine is disrupted and they tend to do more training alone. 
  • Phase 4: Exercise addiction. Life now revolves around working out. The workouts keep increasing in intensity and frequency. It disrupts other areas of life and only exercise to reduce withdrawal symptoms. 


Similar to other behavioral addictions, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or motivational interviewing is usually recommended. It helps since the technique recognizes the effects created by the addiction. When the behavior is identified, the problem motivates the person to get treatment and control the thoughts related to the obsessive nature. 

Professionals can create strategies to manage the addiction and reward from or lower levels of exercise. 

The Bottom Line

Like any other addiction, it takes time to overcome them. It will take a lot of mental and physical dedication to treat, but it will be worth it in the end. 

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