In our fitness obsessed world, it’s not uncommon for the dedicated to workout five, six, or even seven times a week. But did you ever stop to wonder whether your ostensibly healthy drive to stay “fit” might be bordering on pathology? Heather Hausenblas, PhD, and Katherine Schreiber wrote a whole book about it, Exercise Addiction: The Darkside of Thinspiration. We asked Hausenblas to give us an exclusive peak at her cheat sheet for what exercise addiction is and who is at risk.
When a person is addicted exercise dominates their life
Someone who is addicted spends more and more time at the gym; they cancel plans with friends or family to sneak in gym sessions. They need more and more time in motion to achieve the initial effects of calmness, reduction of guilt, or euphoria that exercise initially gave them provided. Nervousness when not active may be a sign. And the kicker: Exercising despite illness or injury.
When a person is addicted missing a workout significantly effects their mood
The withdrawal symptoms of irritability, anxiety, and guilt (also; depressed mood) aren’t the only qualifiers of exercise addiction. Most regularly exercising folks who exercise regularly experience slight dips in mood when they miss a regular workout or are prevented from moving in a way that makes them feel good. If these mood dips become increasingly unbearable and prevent someone from functioning, however, that’s a sign that something may be more serious.
Daily exercise doesn’t mean you’re an addict
Some people who go to the gym every day are irrefutably addicted. Others appear to be free of addiction, considering they make time for other activities and aren’t obsessive about their routines. Whether you are addicted to exercise it depends on how your daily (or near daily) workouts affect your mental and physical health, your social life, and your ability to function in non-exercise exercise-related endeavors. If you find yourself constantly exhausted, intolerably anxious at the thought of missing a workout, or unable to muster enough energy for activities that don’t involve burning calories or lifting weights, you may have a problem.
Exercise addiction can work much like an alcohol or drug addiction
Exercise addiction begins when a person begins needing more and more of their initial exercise routine to feel satisfied. This is essentially tolerance — which is the hallmark of all disorders, especially substance abuse. Of course, tolerance alone doesn’t automatically qualify someone as addicted, considering adaptation to physical exertion is a natural response to taking up a new routine.
In addition to tolerance, the problem grows more severe when the addict’s exercise regimen begins to feel out of control — when they start slipping away from activities they used to enjoy or they begin to feel like they cannot participate in them because of their routine. In short: When an exerciser feels like he or she cannot stop exercising at a frequency, intensity, and/or duration, it is likely he’s suffering from exercise addiction.
Like substances “hijack” the brains of individuals hooked on alcohol or drugs, the compulsion to exercise can hijack the exercise addict’s emotional reward centers. He will need more and more of a particular routine or exercise to get a “fix.” Injury and illness may result — not to mention social and professional conflicts. But the exercise addict will not relent — in large part, for fear of withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, irritability, fatigue, depression; occasionally headaches and other pain sensations).
Secondary vs primary exercise addiction
Many individuals with eating disorders meet the criteria for exercise addiction. This is called “secondary exercise addiction.” For the secondary exercise addict, working out is often seen as an alternative form of “purging” unwanted calories — in addition to exerting extreme control over one’s body size, shape, weight, and overall appearance. It has been argued that male eating disorders are more commonly manifested as “bigorexia” — i.e., an obsession with beefing up, getting “stacked” and incinerating fat in the process.
Primary exercise addicts, by contrast, are hooked on the physical activity itself — be that cardio, weight lifting, yoga, pilates or some other type of exercise. Rather than exercising to control body size, shape, or weight the primary exercise addict’s main goal when excessively exerting themselves is to pursue the feelings and sensations derived during and after the actual physical experience.
Terms like “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” can be dangerous
Thinspiration and fitspiration refer to content (images, videos, slogans, etc.) intended to motivate people to exercise. Unfortunately, they often fail to do this — research shows they can actually make people less likely to get to the gym, as they tend to promote unhealthy and unappealing approaches to fitness (i.e., pictures of fitter and thinner than average individuals tagged with phrases like “suffer the burn or suffer the pain of regret,” “suck it up now or suck it in later”; other studies indicate thinspiration and fitspiration can promote disordered eating habits, compulsive exercise behavior, and damage self-esteem and body image).
Thinspiration and fitspiration are not only terms used for exercise addicts. They’re actually intended to appeal to anyone and everyone looking to stick to their routines. That being said, as previously mentioned, they often embody the exercise addict’s distorted conceptions about and approach to exercise.