Many mock the idea that excessive exercise can constitute as an addiction - after all, how can you be addicted to something that you’re told to do and that is ‘good for you’? Society tells us that we need to exercise more in order to reap the rewards of health, fitness, weight management, body image and stress relief. On top of this, exercise can be an effective treatment for mental health problems or addictions. But what happens when exercise becomes the addiction?
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) describes people with exercise addiction as experiencing ‘loss of control such that exercise becomes an obligation and excessive’. The British Journal of Sports Medicine adds that there are two types of exercise addiction: primary and secondary. Primary exercise addiction happens when the exercise is the main aim of the practice, whereas secondary exercise addiction is the consequence of an eating disorder and a means to control weight.
Despite common assumptions, there are many similarities between excessive exercise and other addiction patterns. For example, exercise releases endorphins and dopamine; both of which are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use. When an addict stops exercising, the neurotransmitters go away, so they have to exercise more to trigger the chemical release. In the classic pattern of addiction, exercise addicts increase their amount of exercise to re-experience feelings of a natural high they had previously experienced with shorter periods of movement. When addicts don’t exercise, they can experience withdrawal symptoms due to the lack of endorphins and dopamine being released.
Exercise addiction is becoming a rising concern alongside society's increasing emphasis on 'wellness' – and the world of wellness shows no signs of stopping when it comes to boosting consumer health and wellbeing. Euromonitor International estimates that the wellness industry is set to grow to £632 billion by 2021. ‘Fitspo’ social media accounts crop up at every corner of the internet and more of us are becoming loud and proud gym bunnies, boasting about our own exercise regimes to be praised by our followers and fellow ‘wellness’ enthusiasts. As well as this, exercise addiction isn’t classed as an official mental health disorder, making it difficult to know how common it is. All of this adds up to create a very hazy perception of the addiction.
A mobilizing factor of the current wellness epidemic is social media. Making the fitness industry as accessible as the tap of a screen, platforms such as Instagram are flooded with influencers that have mass, vulnerable followings. While unrealistic body images were previously limited to the media, modern technology provides a platform to edit and publish 'idealistic' body images. On top of this, online platforms allow anyone to dub themselves as a fitness expert: people with huge followings have the power to influence their audience’s health and wellbeing with fitness videos, ‘transformation’ pictures and advice. Fitness regimes, based on education or otherwise, are accessible to anyone that searches.
‘Fitspo’ social media accounts can have a big impact on perceptions of healthy exercise due to an emphasis on how you look being the measure of your worth. Messages that are meant to inspire people to exercise and maintain a healthy weight instead raise body image standards to a level that can only be achieved by an extremely strict diet and vigorous exercise regimes.
Any addictive behaviour doesn’t occur overnight, however injury, anaemia and amenorrhoea are common indicators of overtraining, as are constant fatigue and sleep disturbance. Sufferers might also be more likely to drop social plans or family obligations in favour of exercise, or report withdrawal effects such as sadness, restlessness and anxiety when opportunities arise that might conflict with their fitness regime. It’s not the intensity or time spent training that is a sign of exercise addiction, however the motivation behind it.
Treatment for exercise addiction begins with the acknowledgement of the problem, followed by the want to change the cycle. Much like most behavioural addictions, cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy are recommended to help sufferers rethink how they value exercise and manage mood disturbances. The goal of this kind of treatment is to help people recognise the addictive behaviour and develop a less restrictive relationship with their exercise plans.
A healthy relationship with exercise boils down to awareness and balance. Being aware of your motives behind exercise can help to identify any imbalances within your exercise regime. When you are unaware of any imbalances, you are at risk of falling victim to patterns that can lead to compulsive behaviour. Avoid excessive trips to the gym, limit your workout time and the amount of daily exercise. Take breaks from exercise throughout the week and listen to your body: let it rest when necessary and let it recover from injury. As well as this, consider the amount of time you spend on social media. Cut down the amount of time you spend on your phone and make a conscious effort to avoid pointless scrolling. Take five minutes to have a look at who you follow on Instagram and if a person makes you feel bad about your own exercise habits or body image, unfollow them.
If you feel like you are experiencing exercise addiction or suspect someone you know is suffering, please seek advice from a qualified health professional.
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