After a huge lifting session, marathon run, or mountain-scaling bike ride, you've got a cocktail of chemical endorphins flooding your body—and it's easy to get hooked. But when your commitment to be faster, stronger, and better goes a bit too far—the theoretical hooks bite deeper—you can cross the fine line between being committed and becoming addicted.
And in case you're wondering: Yes, exercise addiction happens. “Exercise addiction is engaging in an activity—lifting, running, training for a triathlon—that starts off pleasurable, then shifts to become compulsive and noticeably interferes with ordinary life responsibilities,” says Gloria Petruzzelli, a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist at California State University's student health and counseling services. “Athletes may not be aware their behavior is out of control because, with social media and other forums, it’s easy to find someone else or a group to justify our extreme behavior,” she explains.
It's easy to put an intense regimen off as your passion and dedication to an end goal—and in most cases it probably is. But if you exhibit these symptoms below, it's important to take a step back, evaluate where you stand honestly, and ask yourself whether that grueling training regimen might actually be counterproductive. Overtraining can happen, and if there's one way to stall your progress, it's pushing your mind, body, and spirit too far. Here are 9 indicators you might be addicted to working out.
Real talk: If you think you or someone you know has an addiction, please see a medical or mental health professional.
1. Your relationships are suffering
“It’s very unhealthy when you find yourself spending an excessive amount of time every day—sacrificing family or social get-togethers—to squeeze in the extra hour, extra set, or extra interval,” Petruzzelli says. Your life needs balance, and your mind and body need a reprieve from such an arduous effort. Rigid adherence to a strict, repetitive exercise routine with no flexibility to change when you workout is a major red flag, she adds. (It's also counterproductive—you should be switching up your routine fairly regularly to avoid plateauing.)
2. You’re constantly getting injured
Too much training puts a huge strain on your body, running all your systems down, which can lead to chronic illness and/or injury. “Addicted athletes are the ones that typically have some aliment constantly going on,” Petruzzelli says. Be honest with yourself: Are you sacrificing the time it would take to recover in favor of furthering your training time? If every set is a dangerous dance with a potential injury, then step back before you do some major damage and live to lift another day.
3. You’re 100% invested in your sport and nothing else
“When all your time, social interactions, resources, and money are about one sport (given that you’re not a professional), and you have no other hobbies or interests, I’d recommend getting an evaluation from a mental health professional,” Petruzzelli suggests. Sure, triathlons are inherently expensive; you could spend thousands of dollars on a wetsuit, high-level bike, and the accompanying gear. You could also spend hours every day training, since it's a colossal undertaking. But that doesn't mean you should be on either of these extremes. If you can be realistic, compromise, or moderate this goal with other aspects of your life, you could be taking things too far.
4. You’ve become overly competitive and self-critical
“Many dedicated athletes or fitness buffs are self-proclaimed Type-A personalities,” Petruzzelli says. This is by no means a bad thing, but type-A personalities respond to stress differently. “Specifically, under extreme stress, they may strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments, and exhibit significant life imbalances,” Petruzzelli explains. If you find you’re easily wound up, have poor emotional management, and are in a constant struggle against the clock or a personal best, you could be erring into the extreme of exercise addiction.
“Every personality has positive and negative aspects, but having a type-A personality may make you more vulnerable to stress or unhealthy coping behaviors that contribute to training addiction,” Petruzzelli explains.
5. You’re guilt-ridden if you miss a workout
Men and women who become compulsive with exercise suffer from extreme guilt when they're unable to train, Petruzzelli says. They're also prone to "making up for" a missed session by overtraining and overloading their bodies. If you beat yourself up or purposefully dodge social events that might clash with your workout, it's time to reevaluate.
6. You’re using exercise to moderate your emotions
Yes, everyone clings to the feeling of a runner's high (same goes for the buzz you feel after spin, rock climbing, and every other physical pursuit). And it's only natural to take your frustration from work or your social life out on a particularly grueling or intense workout. But if you rely on exercise to elicit positive feelings (happiness, contentment) and alleviate negative emotions (anger, extreme sadness) on a daily basis, you could be on a dangerous path—especially if you're also not enjoying the exercise and only feel relief with the accomplishment, Petruzzelli says.
7. You're obsessed with your weight or physique
A desire to change your weight or physique is often what spurs the desire to exercise. But if you're exercising solely to burn calories or “earn” your meal—or you engage in compensatory exercise because you ate too much earlier or the day before—that's a sign of obsessive behavior, Petruzzelli says. Some men even suffer from body dysmorphic disorder—a condition where you have a severely distorted perception of your weight and shape. It's incredibly dangerous for your mental and physical health if you're never satisfied with your performance, the way your body looks, or how you're progressing.
"Having a healthy balance between your everyday life and your training can make you a better athlete and person," Petruzzelli says.
Here are 4 ways to do just that:
1. Create a healthy way to cope with stress and negative emotions
Other than with training! This is the number-one way to form any type of equilibrium in your life. No one thing is a cure-all for emotions and life stress.
2. Set clear time boundaries with your training
Create a realistic regimen with a professional trainer. Whatever your training plan says to do, make sure you "stick to those time boundaries prescribed intervals, sets, miles, time, etc.," Petruzzelli says.
3. Have a support system of non-fitness people in your life
"We all need people outside of our circles to help us see what we may not be able to," Petruzzelli says. "Many professional athletes have their own 'team' that is not associated with their sport for this reason," she adds. Touch base with people who give you a good reality check and honest feedback.
4. Change your mindset
The beauty of having balance is to be able to experience the positive effects of our sport/fitness activities and create possibilities of what we can do with our minds and bodies. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen mindfulness teacher, says: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it." Another of his teachings: "We have more possibilities available to us in each moment than we realize.”
Addiction mindset pulls our attention away from experiencing other things in life that can bring us excitement. Find balance and trust that there will be more to life than just training.
If you want to do a quick self-assessment to check in where you stand on the spectrum, take “The Compulsive Exercise Test.”
One more time: Meet with a professional if you think you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise.