The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction

While it may not necessarily sound like a bad thing to everyone, exercise addiction can lead to real problems, so you may be wondering, what is exercise addiction? After all, numerous studies have demonstrated the physical and emotional health benefits of regular exercise — it is essential to our well-being. Unlike many other addictive behaviors, we are encouraged to exercise more. However, there is such a thing as exercise addiction—and it can have harmful consequences.

Characteristics of Exercise Addiction

Several characteristics distinguish healthy regular exercise from exercise addiction.

Firstly, exercise addiction is maladaptive, so instead of improving a person’s life, it causes more problems. Exercise addiction can threaten health, causing injuries, physical damage due to inadequate rest, and in some instances (particularly when co-occurring with an eating disorder), malnutrition and other problems.

Secondly, it is persistent, so an exercise addict exercises too much and for too long without giving the body a chance to recover. We all overexert ourselves on occasion and usually rest afterward. But people with exercise addiction exercise for hours every day, regardless of fatigue or illness. As the individual’s principal way of coping with stress, they experience anxiety, frustration, or emotional discomfort if they are unable to do so.

The Confusion and Controversy About Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is probably the most contradictory of all the addictions. As well as being a widely promoted health behavior, important for the prevention and treatment for a range of ailments, exercise can be an effective part of treatment for other mental health problems.

Exercise is even promoted as part of a complete program of recovery from other addictions. It forms part of new and effective approaches to treating mental health problems which commonly co-occur with or underlie addictions such as depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD). It's understandable how some are confused by how exercise could be an addiction itself.

Like other behavioral addictions, exercise addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive exercise can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms — such as withdrawal — for an activity to be a true addiction.

Although there is considerable research showing that exercise releases endorphins (opioids produced within the body), and excessive exercise causes tolerance to the hormones and neurotransmitters released, these physiological processes are often not considered comparable to other substance addictions.

Exercise addiction is currently classified under "behavioral addiction" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the gold standard for the diagnosis of mental disorders. It is also considered a "compensatory behavior" used to prevent weight gain, along with self-induced vomiting, and misuse of laxatives, among individuals with the eating disorder bulimia nervosa.

A recent study, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders — Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, found that rates of exercise addiction are nearly four times greater in adults displaying signs of an eating disorder.

How Is Exercise Addiction Like Other Addictions?

There are several similarities between exercise addiction and drug addiction, including effects on mood, tolerance, and withdrawal.

Neurotransmitters and the brain's reward system have been implicated in exercise and other addictions. For example, dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and regular, excessive exercise has been shown to influence parts of the brain involving dopamine.

Like other addictive substances and behaviors, exercise is associated with pleasure and social, cultural or sub-cultural desirability. People who develop exercise addiction tend to be inflexible in their thinking, similar to people with other addictions, and this can reinforce the pattern of addiction by helping them to exercise regularly. In addition, research shows that even people at high risk of developing exercise addiction are supported in exercising by family and friends.

Healthy Fitness vs. Exercise Addiction

Only 8% of gym users meet the criteria for exercise addiction. In the classic pattern of addiction, exercise addicts increase their amount of exercise to re-experience feelings of escapism or the natural high they had previously experienced with shorter periods of exercise. They report withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to exercise, and tend to go back to high levels of exercise after a period of abstinence or control. Three percent of gym users feel they cannot stop exercising.

While many reasons for exercising are shared among exercisers whether or not they are addicted — health, fitness, weight management, body image, and stress relief — exercisers who are not addicted cite other reasons that exercise addicts do not share, such as social enjoyment, relaxation, and time alone.

People at risk for exercise addiction have difficulties in other areas in their lives that drive them to exercise to dangerous levels. They feel strongly that exercise is the most important thing in their life, and they use exercise as a way to express emotions including anger, anxiety, and grief, and to deal with work and relationship stress. Some know that their excessive exercise has caused conflicts with their family members.

A central function of exercise addiction is the sense of control — over mood, the body, the environment — that exercise provides. It also provides a sense of structure. Ironically, as with other addictions, the attempt to exert control eventually leads to a loss of control over the ability to balance the activity with other priorities in life. People who are addicted to exercise tend to miss out on family, social, and work events or tend to neglect work, school, or personal responsibilities because of the need to exercise.

What to Do If You Think You May Be Addicted to Exercise

Exercise is a great way to manage stress and to address negative feelings. If your need for exercise is greater than your ability to manage your relationships and feelings, you may need more help, both to overcome your addiction and to find healthier ways of coping. Speak with your doctor about the best way to treat your addiction.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Reiner M, Niermann C, Jekauc D, Woll A. Long-term health benefits of physical activity--a systematic review of longitudinal studiesBMC Public Health. 2013;13:813. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-813

  2. Freimuth M, Moniz S, Kim SR. Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addictionInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8(10):4069–4081. doi:10.3390/ijerph8104069

  3. Berczik K, Szabó A, Griffiths MD, et al. Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiologySubst Use Misuse. 2012;47(4):403–417. doi:10.3109/10826084.2011.639120

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Can exercise help conquer addiction?.

  5. Carek PJ, Laibstain SE, Carek SM. Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxietyInt J Psychiatry Med. 2011;41(1):15–28. doi:10.2190/PM.41.1.c

  6. Saanijoki T, Tuominen L, Tuulari JJ, et al. Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human SubjectsNeuropsychopharmacology. 2018;43(2):246–254. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.148

  7. Trott M, Jackson SE, Firth J, et al. A comparative meta-analysis of the prevalence of exercise addiction in adults with and without indicated eating disordersEat Weight Disord. 2020. doi:10.1007/s40519-019-00842-1

  8. Arias-Carrión O, Stamelou M, Murillo-Rodríguez E, Menéndez-González M, Pöppel E. Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative reviewInt Arch Med. 2010;3:24. doi:10.1186/1755-7682-3-24

  9. Alcaraz-Ibáñez M, Aguilar-Parra JM, Álvarez-Hernández JF. Exercise addiction: Preliminary evidence on the role of psychological inflexibilityInt J Ment Health Addict. 2018;16:199–206. doi:10.1007/s11469-018-9875-y

  10. Lichtenstein MB, Griffiths MD, Hemmingsen SD, Støving RK. Exercise addiction in adolescents and emerging adults - Validation of a youth version of the Exercise Addiction InventoryJ Behav Addict. 2018;7(1):117–125. doi:10.1556/2006.7.2018.01

  11. Cook RH, Griffiths MD, Pontes HM. Personality factors in exercise addiction: A pilot study exploring the role of narcissism, extraversion, and agreeablenessInt J Ment Health Addict. 2020;18:89–102. doi:10.1007/s11469-018-9939-z

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.