Workout Addiction

When you hear the word addiction, you usually think of cocaine, shabu, alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana. You rarely think of exercise as an addiction because exercise is supposed to be good for you. Yet, in the true sense of the word, there is no such thing as a healthy addiction. To become addicted means to devote or surrender oneself to something obsessively. There is nothing healthy about obsession. According to Barbara Brehm, Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, the trademark of addiction is the reliance on something outside of oneself to cope with life and manage stress.

In the 1970's, running, was considered a ''positive addiction''. However, in 1979, psychologist William Morgan proved that excessive running could develop into a ''negative addiction'' because of its harmful effect on physical and mental wellbeing. In 1989, he showed that exercise abuse was not only confined to running but was common to many types of exercise.

Signs of exercise addiction
Large amounts of exercise do not necessarily mean a person is an exercise addict. There is a difference between exercise overtraining and exercise addiction. The difference is the reason why the individual is doing so much exercise.

An aerobics instructor may be teaching many classes a week and is in danger of being overtrained but is not addicted. Competitive athletes usually accumulate a large volume of exercise time but they are not considered exercise addicts.

So, what are the signs of an exercise addict? According to Morgan, there are three symptoms common to exercise abusers: They rely excessively on exercise, they continue to exercise even when injured or ill, and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they cut back on exercise.

Relying excessively on exercise.
When people start to exercise, it is normal to increase the frequency and duration of the workouts to improve their fitness level. However, most people will eventually reach a plateau of maintenance.

Exercise addicts, on the other hand, are seldom satisfied with their exercise routines. They continually try to increase their ''dose'' of exercise. The need for exercise becomes compulsive. Exercise becomes the number one priority. Family responsibilities, social and work obligations are neglected or ignored in favor of their workouts.

According to sports psychologist Jack Raglin, one reason for the compulsion of an exercise addict is that physical activity may be their only means of coping with stress and anxiety. Research shows that exercise is beneficial in stress management, but exercise should not be the only means to combat stress levels. A psychologically balanced person will use other methods as well.

Exercising while injured or ill
Regular exercisers are usually reluctant to stop their workouts even when they are injured because they fear losing the fitness benefits they worked so hard to gain. However, most people will listen to reason and take a break from their exercise routine if the dangers are made clear to them. Not exercise addicts. In his case studies, Morgan that workout addicts would continue to exercise even when they were faced with an illness or serious injury like a stress fracture.

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
Even casual exercisers experience some form of mild anxiety when they miss a workout or two but exercise addicts experience withdrawal symptoms that are similar to those felt by heroin addicts. Commonly reported symptoms include sleep problems, changes in appetite, mood disturbances and depression.

Causes of exercise addiction
As of now, nobody knows for sure why a person becomes an exercise addict. Researchers think it may be due to dissatisfaction with one's body, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and personality disorders like obsession-compulsion. Another theory is that people become addicted to elevated levels of endorphins, which are hormones that are chemically similar to opiates like morphine and heroin.

Dangers of addiction
Just like drug addicts, exercise addicts need more and more of a ''fix'' to get satisfaction. This can lead to injury and fatigue caused by excessive exercise. Even the immune system gets affected. Moderate amounts of exercise strengthen the immune system making us less prone to colds and flu. Too much exercise has the opposite effect.

Since exercise addicts only know how to overdo exercise, there is a danger of the ''all or nothing'' attitude. They may quit exercising completely when injury or burnout forces them to stop exercising excessively.

Research has found that exercise addicts have a greater disposition to developing eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Anorexics avoid eating because of a fear of getting fat while bulimics vomit the food they eat in a belief that this will prevent them from gaining weight. Both disorders stem from poor self-esteem. Excessive exercise due to exercise addiction can also lead to amenorrhea (stoppage of menstruation) and osteoporosis (brittle bones) in females.

Are you a workout addict?
The following questions, taken from Fitness Management Magazine, can help you assess whether you have exercise addiction or not. A single ''yes'' answer does not mean that you are obsessed with your workout but it indicates that your exercise behavior may become a problem, and possibly an addiction.

1. Does exercise provide the primary source of gratification in my life?
2. Does it provide the primary means of escape of avoidance of problems?
3. Am I developing a tolerance to exercise, needing more than I used to achieve the desired effect?
4. Do I need it to function?
5. Is my exercise problem causing (or will it cause) the development of health problems?
6. Has my exercise routine resulted in suggestions from others to change or to stop?
7. Does my exercise routine occur as a predictable, ritualistic and compulsive activity?

What to do
If you suspect that you may be an exercise addict, seek professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. The goal is to get over the addiction altogether but to continue to include exercise as part of a balanced healthy lifestyle.

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