What Is Exercise Addiction

Exercise is essential for good health. It prevents disease and provides a feeling of wellbeing, even helps with sleep. But too much exercise may lead to an unhealthy obsession that can turn deadly. Exercise has a wide variety of forms, from group sports like baseball and basketball to tennis, dancing, golf, skateboarding, body- building, skiing, jogging, etc. Almost any sport can be taken to an extreme.

Exercise has a long history of applications, dating even farther back than the competition of games in ancient Greece 3000 years ago. So training for competition also has a long history. In the 19th Century exercise for its own sake began to take new forms and capture the public’s imagination. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the "father of gymnastics," invented the parallel bars and gymnastics took off. Charles Atlas (1893-1974) invented body- building. Joseph Pilates and Jack La Lanne created their own fitness programs in the 1930s and 40s. Celebrities from the Olympics and other sports ignited interest. The craze for perfect bodies, good health, and exercise took off as a way of life in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Celebrity fitness, jogging, shows like “The Biggest Loser” and other media promotion inspired personal training and exercise as a way to feel and look good. 


Effects on the Brain

Euphoric feelings result from the rapid release of endorphins during intense bouts of exercise. There is a high correlation between exercise addiction and endorphins. Endorphins work by activating opiate receptors in the brain causing pain relief and are also correlated with causing euphoric feelings. 

Short Term Effects

The decrease of pain and increase in euphoric feelings creates a positive feedback loop associated with exercise, which is thought to be a cause of addiction. This feedback loop also helps to explain why intensity of exercise increases over time with exercise addiction.

Long Term Effects 


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Worthlessness
  • Insomnia


  • Neglect relationships
  • Social withdrawal


  • Damaged tendons
  • ligaments, bones
  • cartilage, and joints
  • loss of muscle mass Ammhenorea
  • (females) Osteoperosis  Eating Disorders
  • Gastro-intestinal blood loss and anemia,  myocardial infarction and death

Methods of Abuse

Exercise dependence/addiction can be described as “physical activity that is extreme in frequency and duration, relatively resistant to change, and often accompanied by an irresistible impulse to exercise even when injury, fatigue, or other personal demands persist.”

Criteria for Dependence include the following

  • Tolerance: there is a need for increased amounts of exercise to achieve desired effect. This means there is a diminished effect over time that creates a demand for more.
  • Withdrawal: characteristic symptoms occur (e.g., anxiety, fatigue, depression) when exercise is skipped, so exercise must be resumed to relieve or avoid symptoms.
  • Intention Effect: exercise is often taken in larger amounts, or over a longer period, than was intended.
  • Lack of Control: a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control exercise.          
  • Time: is spent in planning and executing activities necessary to obtain exercise. Physical activity must be maintained during the day and evening no matter what else is happening in life.
  • Reduction in Other Activities: social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of exercise
  • Continuance: exercise is continued despite knowledge of having a persisting/recurring physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused, or exacerbated, by the exercise (e.g., continued running despite injury).

Signs and Symptoms of Exercise Dependence 

  • Interferes with daily life, your job, relationships, and physical health.
  • Missing exercise causes anxiety that something bad will happen.
  • Ignoring signs of illness, injury or fatigue and continue to exercise despite warnings.
  • Neglecting friends and family to work out.
  • Perfectionist body image and attitude toward physical self
  • Unrealistic and unattainable goals (miles run, hours worked out, calories burned, body fat percentage)

Other names

  • Compulsive Athleticism
  • Compulsive Exercise
  • Exercise Abuse
  • Obligatory Exercise
  • Anorexia Athletica 


Anxiety, depression