Do You Have an Exercise Addiction?

bodybuilderPhoto courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

While emotional eating is something we’ve all heard of (and probably participated in, truth be told), how many of you have heard the term ‘emotional exercising?’ As I mentioned last week, I’m on a journey to get fit and I’m struggling with motivation.  As I pay more attention to the people exercising around me, I’ve started wondering about the opposite end of the spectrum.  How much is too much?

At first, the concept of working out your tension in the weight room or going for a celebratory run seems like a pretty decent idea, and one that many doctors and psychologists recommend to their patients.

Many of the physical health benefits associated with regular exercise are obvious: stronger muscles, healthier body weight, better cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, lowered chance of diabetes, improved sleep and increased energy. Although the psychological benefits you can reap from regular exercise are a lot harder to monitor, staying fit has indeed been proven to ease depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

I’ve read several studies that even showed improvements in brain function after cardio workouts, including better memory, attention and learning abilities. One recent and particularly large study that took place at King’s College in London, summed up their results as such: “Healthy body; healthy mind.”

Like all good things, exercising can become addictive.  Because of its awesome ability to activate the brain’s pleasure center, some people take exercising to the extreme, wanting more and more of the feel-good hormones that working out releases.

Take Jeff Tweedy, for example.  Jeff is the lead singer of the band Wilco, and he developed a nasty combination of drug and alcohol addictions due to the rock and roll lifestyle and a lifelong affliction with migraines (for which he took prescription pain killers).  Several years ago, Jeff went to rehab, got clean, and has been sober ever since. After rehab, he took up running.

In fact, he ran so much, he broke both of his legs doing it. When interviewed, Jeff had this to say: “Just because I found something good to do doesn’t mean I’m not going to hurt myself doing it.”

Because exercising activates the brain’s pleasure circuit so well, it can indeed become a problem – especially for those people who are more prone to addiction in general.

If you’re putting important life events and people on the back burner in order to work out, it may be time to take a look at your attitude toward exercise. Outwardly, it can be difficult to differentiate between a healthy athlete and an exercise addict. What I’ve learned is it’s the attitude that matters.

People who become addicted to exercising will lose perspective and balance in their lives. Just like a drug, working out becomes their first priority, regardless of who or what it replaces. Increased miles on the pavement, extra hours in the gym, multiple workouts every day. More is always better to the addict.

Exercise is an amazing tool for many reasons, and most of us should be doing more of it. However, if you had an ‘a-ha’ moment while reading about exercise addiction, your next move should be to find a good therapist. Leading a healthier, happier, and more balanced life will come when you are able to separate your emotions from exercise. And a little Ellen DeGeneres can’t hurt, either: “I really don’t think I need buns of steel.  I’d be happy with buns of cinnamon.”

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