While physical exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, some individuals become addicted to exercise and begin overtraining. Exercise addicts who overtrain will often make their compulsive workouts a first priority. They may miss work, school, or other important obligations like family events. Researchers believe that addictive endorphins that are released during a workout may be the cause.
The cause of exercise addiction is debated within the scientific community. There are no formal definitions or testing measures. The variety of names includes exercise dependence, exercise abuse, and obligatory exercise. The disorder is also not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. However, research suggests that the body responds to the stress of intensive workouts by producing addictive chemicals called beta-endorphins. The hormones are secreted by the pituitary gland to block stress, appetite, anxiety, and create euphoric feelings. Endorphins are chemically related to the drug morphine and both bind to the same receptors in the brain. Morphine is often used to relieve pain in hospitals, but is also addicting.
A “runner’s high” is a term used to describe a runner’s numbness to pain as she experiences an exhilarating energy during a long run. Researchers believe that the “runner’s high” is caused by a surge of endorphins that are responding to the difficult exercise. The more physically fit an athlete is, the more receptive she is to the hormones. Also, a longer and more intense exercise will increase the concentration of endorphins. An athlete who experiences increased exposure to the hormones has the potential to become addicted.
Other evidence supports the addictive nature of endorphins as well. Researchers discovered that when beta-endorphins were injected into depressed patients, their moods were elevated. The experiment demonstrates that endorphins improve an athlete’s mood during and after a workout.
The Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction
There are still conflicting ideas about the cause of exercise addiction despite the evidence that supports endorphin causes. But there are common warning signs of the disorder. One sign is if the individual is working out alone and isolated from others. Another sign of exercise addiction is when an individual follows a strict exercise pattern faithfully. Addicts will usually workout for more than two hours every day and will be fixed on losing weight or burning calories. These individuals will even exercise when sick, injured, or in pain. People who suffer from exercise addiction also experience damaging psychological effects. They will often become depressed and irritable if they cannot workout. They alleviate these symptoms by exercising and the cycle continues. Consequently, the disorder is harmful both physically and mentally.
Exercise dependence is rare among most people. For every person who exercises regularly, there are more than a hundred people who don’t. However, it’s important to know that this is a serious addiction that affects people and families. More research must be done to effectively treat exercise addiction and help individuals overcome this disorder.