Too much exercise can be just as addictive as drugs, for some. CHRISTIAN C/CC FLICKR

There are a number of behaviours that people engage in on a daily basis; if they go unchecked, they can spiral out of control and be taken to extreme measures.

Examples of such behaviours include drinking, drugs, sex, gambling, and even exercise. ‘Exercise addiction’, also known as ‘obligatory exercise’ or ‘exercise dependence’, is a condition that is described as an unhealthy obsession or dependence on a strict exercise regimen. Exercise addiction is often comorbidly associated with body image and eating disorders.

When exercise is removed for a 24–36 hour period from a person afflicted with exercise addiction,  withdrawal symptoms become present. Symptoms can include changes in mood, anxiousness, sleeplessness, headaches, and loss of appetite.  The condition is not well understood in terms of whether it is biological, inherited, psychological, cultural in nature, or some combination of the above.

Exercise is great for the body and mind, but the line between a healthy affinity for  fitness and obsessive exercise can be narrow.

An athlete or leisurely exerciser will invest time and energy into the activity and allow for flexibility in their schedule. The opposite is true for obsessive exercisers: their passion manifests itself in a rigidly controlled manner, with no flexibility accepted. Those who exercise in this fashion spend a great amount of time exercising, while decreasing the time spent on other important activities.

Although exercise dependence impacts a small portion of the population, studies report that the number of people addicted to exercise is correlated to the level of competition and the type of physical activity that individuals engage in.

Studies show that as many as 3 per cent of regular gym goers, 7 per cent of university sport science students, 25 per cent of amateur runners, 50 per cent of marathon runners, and 52 per cent of triathletes have been impacted by exercise dependence. Obsessive exercise was found to be more likely in athletes involved in team sports compared to individual sports.

Some traits of exercise addicted individuals are similar to those of other addicts, including obsessing over the chosen sport or activity, continuing to engage in the behaviour even though it is causing mental and physical harm, and engaging in the behaviour in secret.

A multitude of triggers exist that could result in unhealthy exercise behaviour. The three most common triggers are: a method of weight control and weight loss, an attributable condition to a body image or eating disorder, and a dependence on increased serotonin and dopamine levels stimulating the brain’s reward pathway, a reaction inducing pleasurable feelings and reinforcing the behaviour.

There are hormonal triggers as well, but on a hormonal level a greater intensity and greater time spent exercising will be required to trigger the chemical release leading to feelings of reward and joy.

Exercise addiction puts individuals at risk for severe maladies.  Exercise dependence can result in extreme weight loss and health conditions related to low body weight, such as nutrient deficiencies, suppressed immune system function and greater risk of infection, increased risk of miscarriage, decreased ability of the body to absorb essential nutrients, and muscle atrophy or a decrease in muscle mass.

To prevent regular exercise from getting out of hand, it is important to remember to take breaks from the gym or your physical activity of choice, especially if you are injured or sick. Attend family and social events, do not give up on other hobbies, and schedule time to work out in your weekly planner.

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