By Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CIP, CDWF-Candidate and Roger Porter
Can Exercise Become Unhealthy?
In a word: Yes.
Physical exercise is great for our minds and bodies. The rush of endorphins one feels when they are on the treadmill, swooping into a downward dog yoga pose, sweat pouring from their eyes at a Soul Cycle ride, or clocking the ten thousandth FitBit step is enough to bring one back for more. But for some, the ‘high’ of exercise can transform into an addiction that is just as debilitating as substance abuse dependency.
Some may joke,
“I wish I had that addiction – I’d be at the gym all the time and look great.”
However, research shows exercise addiction is a serious issue that affects 3 to 5 percent of the population. According to Science Daily, too much exercise in some cases can be linked to eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia, and orthorexia Nervosa.
An Intro to the Adonis Complex
Muscle dysmorphia (or the “Adonis Complex”) falls under the grouping of eating disorders and is defined as the obsessive belief, delusional or exaggerated, that one’s body is too small or skinny and insufficiently muscular. Even though the individual’s build is normal, or in some cases exceptionally muscular, the person becomes fixated on gaining body mass and turns to:
- obsessive workout routines
- dietary regimens
- even steroids
This disorder largely affects males. As it is likened to anorexia in females, The Adonis Complex speaks to the larger concerns of male body image. Although the physical symptoms are clear, there isn’t a physical disorder at play, making it difficult for researchers and others to recognize, especially when males experiencing the disorder often appear normal and healthy to observers. In fact, some estimates pinpoint 10% of gym-going men experience muscle dysmorphia.
The Power of Steroids
And it’s not just the bulging muscles and underlying body image issues that pose a risk to one’s health. In many cases, men who experience muscle dysmorphia use steroids to enhance their physical size. Steroid use leads to addiction, as users often turn to stimulant drugs such as cocaine to boost energy and curb appetite. According to the Addiction Center, mixing steroids with other illegal drugs can create a dangerous cocktail that heightens aggression and puts stress on the heart. Furthermore, steroid use can cause:
- hormonal imbalances
- rapid muscle gain
When steroids are taken, it causes the body to overproduce the hormone testosterone in men, which leads to increased muscle growth. However, the hormonal imbalance steroids can create may lead to violent mood swings and depression, even when the abuser quits taking the steroids.
On some occasions, men will self-medicate with heroin to fight the effects of aggression and insomnia which steroids cause, further compounding the problem.
The Manifestation of Exercise Addiction in Athletes
In other cases, particularly athletes such as swimmers, wrestlers and cross country runners, exercise addiction and eating disorders mix because of the pressures of being a successful athlete. These athletes are required to “cut weight” – meaning hit a certain weight target to compete in their category. As such, athletes will over-exercise and put restrictions on their diet under the guise of healthy athleticism, which may cause further harm.
Research has further shown that professional swimmers will abuse cocaine to curb appetite in order to cut weight. This unhealthy regimen then leads to bulimia, another type of eating disorder, which is again linked to exercise addiction.
More on Orthorexia Nervosa
Orthorexia Nervosa is another potential by-product of over-exercising to the point of dependency. This condition is marked by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Like exercise addiction, Orthorexia Nervosa can consume your life to the point where you’re:
- Missing social engagements.
- Pinning your mood on what you ate that day.
- Pinning your mood on the exercise routine you completed.
- Exercising when you’re sick or injured.
This preoccupation gives one a feeling of control and false power based on diet and workout regimen. One can become overwhelmed when a diet or exercise goal is not met. This disorder – given the media’s preoccupation with looking good and eating healthy – is substantially growing by women and gentleman who want “to be healthy.”
How to Identify Exercise Addiction
Since many of us commit to a continuous workout plan, what does fitness addiction look like? Exercise psychologist Heather Hausenblas explains it best:
“It’s when exercise becomes all consuming – when you start losing friends, foregoing social activities or reneging work opportunities – that your workout schedule becomes cause for concern.”
Here are some of the signs of exercise addiction that can signal you may be taking it too far:
Tolerance. Your body adapts to the challenge of fitness you exert on it. If you get to a point where strenuous physical activity – 15 minutes on a stairmaster or a five mile jog on a treadmill – is too easy, this may be a sign of addiction. An increase in intensity is okay but when your body no longer feels and reacts to an increase then it becomes over-exercise.
Withdrawal. Much the way a caffeine drinker feels the effects of withdrawal when they give it up, a person with a fitness addiction may feel anxious or restless when they miss their workout routine. However, this isn’t the norm for regular physical activity.
Lack of control. Taking a break, resting up, and meeting up with friends instead of hitting the gym shouldn’t be a problem. If you feel an overwhelming need to never miss a workout, it may be a sign you’re losing control over your routine.
Intention. If you come up with a workout plan, stick to it. One 50-minute yoga class for the day is all the physical activity you need. However, if you’re adding on an extra bar method class or another hour of strength training, you’re diverging from your original intention.
Time. Everyone has a busy schedule and may show up late from time to time because of traffic, etc. However, running late to a business meeting or missing, class, work, dinner plans, etc. because your workout repeatedly runs long is a red flag that exercise is taking up too much of your time.
Continuance. If you experience an injury or feel emotional distress yet continue to push yourself through workouts you may want to reconsider the role exercise plays in your life.
Use of steroids. Steroids are a prescription drug used for specific medical treatments. Although athletes commonly use them, steroids are illegal outside of prescription and can cause serious health problems.
How is Exercise Addiction Treated?
Although there is limited research and literature on exercise addiction, researchers in the behavioral health field suggest the best way to approach this disorder is to slowly ease up on the routine and mix it up. For instance, rather than the same yoga and strength training each day, mix in a session of swimming or biking, or try an assortment of group exercise classes at the local gym.
In addition, talking with professionals who can help you modify emotional states associated with the behaviors, thoughts and feelings one experiences is important. Learning to keep exercise within the range that health experts suggest will keep you healthy and strong – 150 minutes each week of aerobics and strength training.
Reference Sources: For more on your exercise routine being a passion or a problem, check out this blog here.
For a look at how fitness trackers may turn from motivation to distress, check out Live Happy here.
For a look at the latest research news on exercise addiction, check out Science Daily here.
For more information about anabolic steroids, check out the Addiction Center here.
For a great resource on eating disorders and exercise addiction, take a look at Eating Disorder Hope here.
For more on exercise addiction and ways to get help, visit CRC Health here.
For questionnaires to determine if you are experiencing body dysmorphia or appearance anxiety, visit the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation here.
For a look at how eating disorders affect athletes, visit the Eating Disorder Hope website here.
For an inspirational story of one man’s struggle with eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia and his path to recovery, visit Brian Cuban’s website here.
For more information about steroids, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse here.