Exercise Addiction: The Signs + Dangers Of Exercise Dependence

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Exercise addiction or exercise dependence may seem like a “lucky“ problem to have if you struggle with the motivation to work out, but being addicted to working out or having an addiction to the gym is actually a real problem that some people struggle with, and it comes with various risks, both physical and psychological.

But, what is exercise addiction? How do you know if you have a gym addiction or if you are addicted to working out?

What are the signs of exercise addiction or being addicted to exercise in general? And what are the best tips to help treat exercise dependence and find a better balance with working out?

In this exercise addiction guide, we will define what exercise addiction is, discuss the signs and symptoms of being addicted to working out, discuss the risks of having a gym addiction, and share some tips for recovering from an addiction to exercise.

We will cover the following:

  • What Is Exercise Addiction?
  • Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Addiction
  • What Causes Exercise Addiction?
  • How Can You Treat an Exercise Addiction?

Let’s get started!

A person on the floor exhausted from working out.

What Is Exercise Addiction?

Like any form of addiction, exercise addiction refers to an unhealthy obsession, but in the case of exercise addiction, this unhealthy obsession revolves around physical activity, exercise, or working out.

There is often an overlap of addiction to working out with other body image disorders and eating disorders, though you do not necessarily need to have body dysmorphia or an eating disorder to suffer from an exercise addiction or a gym addiction. 

In the general population, the prevalence of exercise addiction is about 3%, but the rate is much higher in competitive athletes.

It is estimated that 14.2% of endurance athletes suffer from exercise addiction, while 25% of competitive runners, 50% of marathon runners, and 52% of triathletes have an addiction to working out.

Gym addiction is estimated to occur in 8.2% of everyday gymgoers.

The negative effects of exercise addiction can include injuries, overtraining syndrome, social life or professional life issues, depression, anxiety, insomnia, body dysmorphia, RED-S, hormonal imbalances, and poor judgment surrounding working out.

Although addictions often are associated with unhealthy behaviors like drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sugar consumption, many of the same traits that addicts of these other vices or behaviors exhibit can be present in those who have an exercise addiction or gym addiction.

A tired runner bent over.

Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Common signs of exercise addiction include the following:

  • Obsessing over your gym routine or workout routine
  • Engaging in your workouts even when they are causing pain, physical harm, or injury.
  • Continuing to exercise or stick with your routine even when you feel like you want to stop or take a break, yet somehow you still feel a compulsion to go to the gym or work out.
  • Hiding your exercise behaviors by sneaking around or going to the gym when you say you are doing something else.
  • Needing to work out more and more or continually increase the amount of exercise you do to feel satisfied.
  • Measuring the “quality“ of your day or your “merit or value“ by how well your workout went.
  • Prioritizing your gym sessions or exercise routine over a social life, daily life responsibilities, etc.
  • Feeling agitated, depressed, irritable, anxious, or upset if your workout routine is compromised in some way or you have a bad workout.

Exercise dependence can also fall under the umbrella of exercise addiction. 

Basically, exercise dependence means that you physically or mentally depend or rely on exercise to feel “normal,“ and you will experience feelings of withdrawal if you do not get to exercise. 

Therefore, the symptoms of exercise dependence are generally most notable when you are unable to follow your normal workout routine or go to the gym.

Common symptoms of exercise dependence include irritability, moodiness, depression, aggression, anxiety, being concerned about body weight or losing muscle mass, and feeling physically unwell if you are unable to work out.

A runner hunched over, tired from exercise addiction.

What Causes Exercise Addiction?

There are several things that can contribute to developing an exercise addiction or an addiction to the gym.

#1: Weight Loss and Body Image

As mentioned, an addiction to exercise is often seen as an overlapping symptom or issue that is concurrent with an eating disorder or a body image disorder.

Because many people use exercise to lose weight and/or build muscle, working out can be a powerful tool for changing your physique.

Much in the way that orthorexia is defined as an addiction to healthy eating, exercise addiction is essentially when you take your motivation and healthy exercise behavior too far.

When this happens, working out or going to the gym becomes a compulsion or obsession that starts negatively impacting your physical and mental health.

It obliterates any healthy balance you might have in your life in terms of moderation or feeling like it’s okay (and even ideal!) to take a rest day or day off from training.

When people start seeing dramatic weight loss results or start building a lot of muscle if they are bodybuilding, an addiction to the gym or an addiction to working out can develop because you want “more, more, more” and faster results.

You may worry that if you take even a day off or an easier day in your workout routine, you will backslide in your progress and revert to your old body composition or lose fitness and strength (even though this isn’t true).

Additionally, if you have an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, you can develop an exercise addiction as a way to help lose more weight or compensate for binges in the case of bulimia.

A muscular man doing bicep curls.

#2: Addictive Nature of Exercise

Another primary cause of exercise addiction is the changes in neurochemicals and brain chemistry that can result from exercising.

Exercise promotes the release of endorphins and dopamine, which are feel-good chemicals, along with endocannabinoids, which are natural pain-relieving, pleasure-inducing compounds.

You can develop an addiction to working out in order to experience the rush or good feeling you get from exercise, even in the absence of being concerned with your physique or weight loss.

In this way, exercise can give you a “high” like other drugs that people get addicted to, even though the pleasure sensation is naturally produced.

Then, as with the case of a sugar addiction which feeds into the dopamine release, or other drug addictions that also tap into this “reward center“ of the brain, you have to do more and more exercise to get “the high.”

A woman doing bicep curls.

This is because the neural transmitters go away shortly after your workout, and your body can build up an exercise tolerance so that you have to work out harder and longer to experience the same emotional and physical sense of a high.

Some people may also have personalities or neurology that makes them more prone to addictions in general.

For example, researchers estimate that 25% of people with an exercise addiction may have other addictions, such as a sex addiction or shopping addiction, with another 15% experiencing an addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, or illegal drugs.

It is also common to see exercise addiction after “recovering“ from another addiction, such as alcohol or cigarettes. Replacing one behavior with a healthier behavior, in this case, exercise is a common way to help overcome an addiction to a bad substance.

That said, an addiction to working out still comes with physical and mental health consequences and has the same types of underlying behaviors.

A person stretching.

How Can You Treat an Exercise Addiction?

Treating or overcoming an exercise addiction is often mainly a matter of self-control. You must first acknowledge that you have a problem and then try to take steps to control your compulsion to exercise.

You will need to deliberately schedule time off and workout breaks, or maybe switch your workout routine altogether to a different form of exercise or lower-intensity workout for a while.

Trying to develop other hobbies that do not include physical activity can also be a great way to help overcome an exercise addiction. 

This is not to say that you need to quit working out altogether but trying to find other outlets for leisure pleasure can be very helpful.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be helpful.

If you have an underlying eating or body image disorder, working with a comprehensive care team, including a psychotherapist, nutritionist, and other allied medical professionals, can help get to the root cause of the issue to treat not just the exercise addiction but your other eating and body image struggles.

You can find a therapist in your area at Psychology Today here.

A psychologist taking notes.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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