If you are concerned that you or someone you know has a problem with exercise addiction and/or compulsive exercise, here are resources that can help.
The Warning Signs
- Are you spending increasing amounts of time exercising and less time engaging with friends, family, and other interests?
- Have you noticed that your exercise habits are starting to have a negative impact on your life in areas such as work, physical health, and relationship?
- Have you noticed yourself becoming preoccupied with exercise and experiencing mood swings, such as excitement and elation when looking forward to exercise and symptoms of withdrawal, such as irritation, anger, or depression if you are unable to exercise that day?
- Do you often find yourself justifying and rationalizing your behavior around exercise to yourself and others, saying things such as “Exercise is good for you, so the more I do it the better it is”?
- Or, perhaps you have noticed that you spend increasing amounts of time exercising and it is starting to become more important than anything else?
If you answered, “Yes” to several of these questions it is quite possible that you are experiencing a process addiction to exercise.
Wait a Minute… Did You Say Exercise Addiction?
If you’re like most people you are probably wondering, “Can exercise really be an addiction? Isn’t exercise good for you” You would be right in one sense. Exercise is good for you... in moderation. Just like anything else that releases a burst of feel good brain chemicals, it's all about your relationship to the behavior and your ability to find a balance. Many people are able to exercise regularly and maintain a balanced life. However, some people find themselves spinning out of control and exercising compulsively. When this happens, negative side effects start to occur. Coming to grips with one's exercise addiction can be especially difficult in an environment that glorifies and encourages athletic sacrifice and achievement. Exercise addiction is no small thing. It falls under the category of Process Addiction within mental health, which is essentially an addiction to a behavior. It has the power to destroy relationships, damage health and careers, and painfully isolate, all of which can lead to a host of mental ailments, including depression and anxiety. If you suspect that you or someone you love has a problem with compulsive exercise, it is important to take action now, reach out to a mental health professional who understands this addictive process, and get the support needed to make a real and lasting shift.
Exercise and the Brain
Exercise can be a lot of fun and feel really good, plus in moderation, it is really good for you! The studies demonstrating the health benefits of regular exercise are countless in number and physicians are increasingly touting the benefits of regular exercise and even prescribing it. Given all this positive PR it can seem unimaginable that exercise could ever be a negative thing. However, for those whom exercise has become compulsive and out of control, the reality of this addiction is quite real and the negative impact extensive.
No matter the underlying causes of compulsive exercise, understanding what is going on in your brain when you exercise sheds light on this affliction. When you start exercising your brain recognizes this as a stressor. As your heart pressure increases, the brain believes that you are either fighting an enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF has a protective and reparative element to your neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease, happy, and clear after exercising. At the same time, endorphins, another stress neutralizing compound, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is to minimize the discomfort of exercise and block feelings of pain. They are also associated with a feeling of euphoria.
Essentially, BDNF and endorphins are the reason exercise makes us feel so good. However, what most people are not aware of is that they have a very similar and addictive brain interaction as morphine, heroin and nicotine. Though BDNF and endorphins do not have the negative physiological impact as the substances above, they do interact with your brain’s pleasure/reward center and thus can produce a powerful addictive cycle. You may however might want to wait to sound the alarm bells on the dangers of exercise. Just as with any process addiction, the individual has to already be susceptible to the creation of addictive behavior in order to fall into an unhealthy relationship with compulsive exercise. Addiction susceptibility is created through a vast number of factors such as impaired attachment, trauma, and a family history of addiction.
Exercise addiction is a very real psychological phenomenon, and produces clear physiological changes in the brain and body that lead toward the creation of a cycle of addictive behavior. If left unrestrained and untreated the behavior associated with exercise addiction has the potential to severely harm your health and drastically alter your life’s course.
Help is Available
Counseling for exercise addiction, especially if it is caught early, can be a very effective means of treatment. If it is determined that an addiction is involved, the counselor can explain in detail how exercise addiction works, explore the impact of the addiction, and help make a shift in behavior as quickly as possible to give your brain a chance to reset and rewire. After the initial phase of treatment one begins to explore and transform the roots of the addiction in order to prevent a relapse later in life.
Because exercise in moderation is a good thing, the ultimate goal of treatment is helping you to create a healthy balanced relationship with your body and with exercise. This always involves setting healthy boundaries and limits, and can involve exercise breaks, or periods of “sobriety.”
Perhaps You Have Some Questions or Concerns?
Can Exercise Really Be That Big of a Problem?
At this point you may be thinking “Some of this might apply to me, but I’ve got it under control. Exercise is good for me. Doing more can’t be that bad right?” If this rings true, I encourage you to take an honest look at your life and how your exercise behaviors may be negatively impacting it. Compulsive long-term exercise addiction can create enduring changes in your brain and personality, which can also lead to greater susceptibility to other addictions.
Life without exercise addiction can be far more fulfilling and satisfying then you can imagine, and the road to recovery begins with finding the right process addictions counselor for you.
Can’t I Just Do This on My Own?
You may also be thinking, “Hey, this is kind of making sense, and I think this applies to me, but is it really that hard to stop? Can’t I just do it on my own?” If you think you have what it takes to overcome your addiction, I encourage you to take an entire week off from any form of exercise, other than walking, and see how it goes. If it is a struggle, I suggest you reach out for support.
I think I could use some expert support, but I’m not sure if I have the money right now.
When considering if now is the right time to get support it is important to remember that your health and wellbeing are on the line and that waiting could make the problem worse. I like to think of counseling as a personal investment, that pays great dividends. Because addiction to exercise can lead to a host of other problems, such as future addictions, health complications and illness, poor financial success, and a lack of healthy meaningful relationships, it is important to treat the addiction as soon as possible; in doing so you save yourself from current, as well as, potential future pain and suffering. I also help clients file insurance claims that often result in reimbursement. Check with your healthcare provider for your mental health coverage if you are interested in filing.
If you are still uncertain, it can be helpful to know that your initial consultation is 100% risk free. This means that if you come to therapy and if for any reason you do not feel like it is a good fit, you will not be billed.
Only You Can Make a Change…
Only you can make a change and overcome this addiction. I have seen time and time again individuals realize, perhaps for the first time, the full extent of the addiction, including the harm that is being done and what is at stake for their future, and then become motivated to make a shift. I have been trained in the assessment and treatment of process addictions, such as exercise, and can give you all the tools and information necessary to make a shift, however you have to open the door and walk through.
If you suspect that you or someone you know is struggling with addictive or compulsive behavior around exercise, I encourage you not to wait to seek support. Please contact me to schedule your initial consultation.
Also, please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns regarding the treatment of exercise addiction.