There's no denying it: exercise is great for you. But it is possible to overdo it, where it gets to a point where exercising might be more of a compulsion, as opposed to a regular heart-healthy activity in the day. If you're hitting the gym too often or can't seem to find control over your exercising patterns, it could be linked to an exercise addiction, and unless treated, it can become dangerous over time. Here are a few sneaky signs that your workout schedule might be a problem, at which point you'll need to cut back or speak to a professional for help.
What Causes Addiction?
There are several reasons you might become addicted. "You love the high and release of endorphins that are experienced while exercising," said Rebecca Gahan, CPT, owner and founder of Kick@55 Fitness in Chicago, to POPSUGAR. "The more you exercise, with an increase in intensity, the more your body adapts. So, you then need more exercise at an increased intensity to feel the same euphoria." As this is what you're after and it feels good, you keep seeking more, whether through longer workouts or higher training, she added. "For a finite group of individuals, this continual chase becomes obsessive," she said.
It can also come from a need for control, as it's an area that you do have power over when other aspects are falling apart. "Another culprit is wanting to control one aspect of your life when you feel like everything else is out of control," she said. "This also includes personality traits, physiological factors, and genetics," said Balance Founder Melainie Rogers to POPSUGAR. All of these can make you predisposed for the condition. "If someone feels it is hard to deal with things such as negative emotions, stress, or depression, exercise may be a way to cope with these uncomfortable things."
What's more, it can also be linked to diet, where it's a compulsive act associated with binge-eating, also seen as exercise bulimia. "Exercising beyond normal limits can become a way to hold off weight gain from binge-eating. For example, an individual might obsessively overeat and then run on a treadmill immediately afterward in an effort to burn the calories consumed," Gahan said.
What It Might Look Like
"The main difference between healthy exercise for someone who is extremely active versus someone who is addicted is the attitude they have towards working out. Someone who is addicted will have a rigidity to their workout routine," Rogers said. Someone who has a healthy relationship with exercise and is very active will view exercise as an important part of life, as it may provide pleasure or a way to manage stress in a healthy way, but it's not a priority among other things, such as family, friendships, and work.
Typically, your exercise routine should last at most between 30-90 minutes, Gahan said. "Obviously, the 90 minutes is more for fitness professionals and athletes," she said, but the key is to rest afterward. "They will then not exercise again for another 24-48 hours so the body has a chance to recover and heal the small muscle tears created during strength training," she said.
An "addicted" individual will find it hard to wait more than six hours to exercise again, she said. If you're hitting two-a-days without breaking up the two into small workouts, it's a red flag. For instance, you might divide cardio and strength into two sessions: an early-morning cardio session and one afternoon strength-training session. That's totally fine. "If the time exercising exceeds the boundaries of one of the aforementioned options and you feel compelled to exercise more, there could be a problem," Gahan said.
It can also interfere with relationships and a normal schedule filled with activities outside the gym. "A main sign that the relationship to exercise has reached a compulsive state is there is a dependency on the behavior and it is majorly overprioritized. For example, if this exercise becomes more important than things such as social engagements and work, the act of exercising has gone beyond neutral or healthy," Rogers said. "Someone struggling may find it hard to stop, or if they have tried, have been unsuccessful in doing so."
It is important to look at what amount of time is spent thinking about, planning, and engaging in exercising. If these behaviors are taking up a lot of time, that is a large indication that something bigger is going on, Rogers explained. A person struggling with exercise addiction will often prioritize a workout over social events and spending time with loved ones or will push themselves in the gym or at a fitness class even if they are sick or injured.
"If a muscle is broken down, it needs 24-48 hours to rebuild. Not only will an individual not see the lean muscle mass production, but he or she will also risk injury," Gahan said. Specifically, there could be joint inflammation and damage to joints, loss of lean muscle mass in favor of fat storage (think "skinny" fat), sprained ligaments, and torn muscles or tendons, she said.
On the mental side, "the side effects of exercise addiction could cause tremendous anguish, low self-esteem, irritability, and isolation, to name a few," Rogers said. "When there is such a dependency on exercise, even the smallest change to the daily workout routine can cause unbearable anxiety. Withdrawing from one's usual social life can cause major isolation and loneliness."
How to Treat It
"Unlike other addictions, abstinence is not an option. Exercise is needed in life," Gahan said. "A slow wean from extreme durations/frequency/intensity is ideal in combination with therapy and possibly medication."
"A crucial step to begin recovering from exercise addiction is to first come to terms that there may be a problem to address. This is easier said than done, as denial is often a large part of addiction," Rogers said. Evaluate whether or not your relationship with exercise has grown compulsive by skipping a day of exercise or changing up your normal routine. If the thought of this is difficult in itself or trying to do so causes overwhelming anxiety, it would be worthwhile to seek professional help, she said.