Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction — also called “compulsive exercising” or “work out addiction” — is characterized by a loss of perspective regarding exercise. Exercise addicts work out excessively and may become irritable or anxious if they feel they haven’t gotten enough exercise.

What is Exercise Addiction?

It’s hard to say how much exercise is too much. The medical opinion seems to be that when exercise becomes the most important pursuit in a person’s life — even to the point of it being a detriment to health — exercise addiction has developed.

Exercise addiction is different from overtraining for an athletic event, such as a marathon. Healthy athletes will have intense periods of training followed by recovery periods, and they’ll take time off if they’re injured or feel over-worked. Exercise addicts may continue to work out even if they’re exhausted or hurt, and they have trouble taking time off from their workouts.

The Biology of Exercise Addiction

Exercise increases the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with elevated mood, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, and releases endorphins, a kind of natural opiate that produces a feeling of euphoria.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University (2003) found exercising increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical produced in the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. BDNF is used to produce neurons and protect the hippocampus. Mice in the study bred for exercise addiction showed as much as 171 percent more BDNF than the unaffected mice. Scientists suspect this caused the mice’s learning ability to “max out” and contributed to a difficulty in navigating a maze. The study also concluded that keeping the mice from their exercise routine activated the brain regions associated with craving rewards such as food, sex and addictive drugs.

Exercise Addiction Risk Factors

Exercise addicts often stick to an unyielding exercise schedule that goes beyond what is needed for good health. Compulsive exercisers will plan their lives around exercise and struggle with feelings of irritability, guilt, depression and anxiety if they are kept from their routine.

Excessive exercise can lead to injuries that result in long-term damage, unhealthy weight loss and changes to the menstrual cycle that can increase the risk of osteoporosis. While compulsive exercising does not necessarily lead to an eating disorder, the two conditions are often seen together.

Researchers at Tufts University (Peterson 2009) found that runners are particularly susceptible to an addiction to exercise. The so-called “runner’s high” that occurs during a long run — giving the runner a “second wind” to keep going — can be addictive, and mice on a high-intensity running schedule experienced withdrawal symptoms when they were denied their regular exercise routine.

Exercise Addiction Warning Signs

Many people enjoy working out to stay fit. There are several red flags, however, that point toward an exercise addiction, including:

  • Basing self-esteem on the effort put into working out
  • Being dissatisfied with physical achievements
  • Feeling guilty or anxious about skipping a work out; feeling like working out is no longer a pleasure but an obligation
  • Having a preoccupation with weight and exercise
  • Letting basic responsibilities, such as work, school and social obligations, lapse in favor of exercising
  • Maintaining a rigid workout schedule
  • Working out even when sick or injured.

Exercise Addiction Treatments

Researchers are still trying to find answers to why some people become addicted to exercise. Treatment may include therapy to improve self-esteem and nutritional counseling. Drugs may be prescribed to treat anxiety and depression that occur with the disorder.

How to Seek Help

As with any compulsive disorder, it is important to seek the help of a health care professional who can assess the condition and plan the best course of treatment for the individual. Because compulsive exercise is often linked to an eating disorder, it is especially important to get proper medical advice.


American Psychiatric Association. (2006). Obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders conference. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2010, from http://www.psych.org/MainMenu/Research/DSMIV/DSMV/DSMRevisionActivities/ConferenceSummaries/ObsessiveCompulsiveSpectrumDisordersConference.aspx

Kids Health. (2010). Compulsive exercise. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2010, from http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html

Lejoyeux, M. (2006). Prevalence of exercise dependence and other behavioral addictions among clients of a Parisian fitness room. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2010, from http://www.searchmedica.com/xml-resource.html?c=ps&ss=defLink&p=Convera&rid=ds2-va%3Ap%3A1013t%3A67697238576%3Ad115bdab1f0df60e%3A4b29d8a5&t=pubmed

Oregon University of Health and Science. (2003). ‘Good’ chemical, neurons in brain elevated among exercise addicts. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2010, from http://www.ohsu.edu/news/2003/092603bdnf.html

Peterson, D. (2009). Runner’s high can turn into a real addiction. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32573781/ns/health-fitness/