Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction

Man Running on Stairs

Running is unconditionally great for the body, the soul, and the mind, right? Almost, but not quite.

Almost anything harm when taken to an extreme -- even the most benign or beneficial activities.

Even the sacred domain of exercise is not protected from this universal truth. When a commitment to exercise crosses the line to dependency and compulsion, it can create physical, social, and psychological havoc for those among us who appear outwardly to be the very fittest. Runners are particularly vulnerable.

A "positive addiction" is a healthy adaptation to the barriers to exercise in life, since commitments to work, family, and other healthy pursuits must compete for time to work out. Sometimes, however, the line between commitment and compulsion is crossed.

Richard Benyo, writing on the subject of exercise addiction for the Road Runners Club of America, says that there is a negative side to exercise that gradually, insidiously, can take over the positive.

"In an ironic way, nature balances the situation when the thing obsessed turns on and bites the obsessor."

Exercise addiction is not just another term for overtraining syndrome. Healthy athletes training for peak performance and competition can suffer overtraining symptoms, which are the short-term result of too little rest and recovery.

Exercise addiction, on the other hand, is a chronic loss of perspective of the role of exercise in a full life. A healthy athlete and an exercise addict may share similar levels of training volume -- the difference is in the attitude.

An addicted individual isn't able to see value in unrelated activities and pursues his sport even when it is against his best interest.

Recognizing addiction

The exercise addict has lost his balance: Exercise has become overvalued compared to elements widely recognized as giving meaning in a full life -- work, friends, family, community involvement -- in short, the fruits of our humanity.

When emotional connections are passed up in favor of additional hours of training; when injury, illness and fatigue don't preempt a workout; when all free time is consumed by training -- exercise addiction is the diagnosis.

Warning lights for addiction include withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and depression that appear when circumstances prevent you from working out.

To the addict, there is no exception to the rule "the more the better." More training, more hours, more miles, more intensity: more is absolutely always better. Anything that interferes with the lust for more exercise is resented.

Blurred boundaries

The paradox inherent in exercise addiction is the blurred boundary between what is healthy, admirable and desirable, and behavior that is over the edge and dependent. As runners and fitness enthusiasts, we value individuals who seem to epitomize the true athlete who achieves success by virtue of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work.

Peak fitness and excellence, which we aspire to achieve with our own running, require a dogged commitment to training despite circumstances and moods that would conspire against your resolve. Once we accomplish a training routine and the necessary commitment, isn't it normal to feel irritable and a little depressed when we miss our run?

Part of the paradox for the exercise-dependent is that levels of achievement are often beneath what is expected for the obviously high level of commitment. Performance suffers when value is placed only on working out.

The addict answers poor performance with running more and resting less. A healthy athlete looks at the big picture and adjusts training programs allowing for rest and recovery among all the training variables.

Who is at risk?

Experts have argued as to whether exercise addiction is linked to the highly touted "runner's high," due in part to the release of beta-endorphins during and after intense exercise. Most agree though, that exercise addiction is the result of psychological factors.

"Intense, high-achieving perfectionist individuals are particularly vulnerable to this addiction," says psychologist Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D.

In the case of exercise addiction, the underlying psychological causes are usually linked by low self-esteem, which finds gratification in the gains made by training.

"Unfortunately," Stoliaroff warns, "denial is a frequent component of any addictive process."

Don't run away

If you see a little too much of yourself in these paragraphs, don't run the other direction. Find a good counselor or someone else whose opinion you trust and discuss the possibility of exercise addiction.

As you work with a counselor, change the emphasis of your exercise from "more is better," to quality. Objective progress can be made by planning your workouts with an experienced trainer on a weekly basis, with rest and recovery given the emphasis they deserve in a well-balanced training program.

Write down a seven-day schedule, planning mileage, intensity, rest, and any cross-training activities with specific, reasonable goals relative to your skills. Working with a trainer, set outside limits for number of workout hours in any given week.

Count all exercise in your total -- stretching, warm-ups, cool-downs, cross-training, walking, yoga -- everything. Do not exceed the mileage, time, or intensity that you've planned.

Never work out just because you found an extra hour or two in your day. Train only to the extent that you've planned. If you find extra time, spend it with a friend, a book, a movie, call your mother. Set goals in other aspects of your life besides training. Learn something new -- gourmet cooking, sailing, knitting.

Become a mentor to someone in your community who needs you. If you miss a day, scratch it off your schedule. Never make up a missed workout by doubling up the next day.


The exercise-addicted runner will almost always suffer the consequences of his addiction. It is not a coincidence that few exercise addicts can be lifetime runners.

As Benyo said, "the obsession bites back" in the form of chronic injuries, impaired relationships and other problems. The exercise-obsessed runner may one day complain that running ruined his life, but it was running out of balance that was the ruin.

Remember that working out should always have an element of play. If working out loses all aspects of fun, something has gone wrong. The most competitive professional athletes still love their sport, love to run because it gives pleasure, and not because it has become a compulsive need.

Renowned running writer Dr. George Sheehan put it this way: "The things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun -- not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is."

Sheehan ran right to the end of his life. He could not separate his identity from his running. Running and being were synonymous. As a result he achieved great things as a runner. Running didn't subtract from the rest of his life, it added. He was also the father of 12, a doctor, prolific writer, philosopher and thinker. He found balance. Look for balance. Running enhances life. It can't stand alone.

Have you gone over the edge?

Rate yourself as honestly as you can below with the following checklist:

  • I have missed important social obligations and family events in order to exercise.

  • I have given up other interests, including time with friends, in order to make more time to work out.

  • Missing a workout makes me irritable and depressed.

  • I only feel content when I am exercising or within the hour after exercising.

  • I like exercise better than sex, good food, or a movie -- in fact there's almost nothing I'd rather do.

  • I work out even if I'm sick, injured, or exhausted. I'll feel better when I get moving anyway.

  • In addition to my regular schedule, I'll exercise more if I find extra time.

  • Family and friends have told me I'm too involved in exercise.

  • I have a history (or a family history) of anxiety or depression.

    If you have checked three or more of these items, you may be losing your perspective on running and working out. Exercise is healthy as long as it is in balance with a full life. Speak with a mental health professional or your doctor for help.

    (Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase, MD, developed this checklist.)

    Volume 18, Number 6, Running & FitNews
    The American Running Association