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Can Exercise Become an Addiction? And, If So, How Do You Break the Addiction?

exercise addiction Dec 26, 2022

It's undisputed that exercise is good for you. It can help with everything from managing an autoimmune condition to improving your overall health. But like any activity, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. And for some people, exercise can become an addiction.

According to Healthline:

Exercise addiction is defined as an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise that can result from body image disorders and eating disorders. [1]

Even though exercise addition can cause mental, physical, and emotional harm some people may feel that they are unable to stop. So how do you break the addiction? And is it even possible? Read on to find out.


How Does Exercise Become an Addiction?

You might notice that when people are stressed out or in a bad mood they tend to want to exercise. While they might say they’re going on a run to “clear our head” or to the gym to “lift heavy sh*t,” there is another reason that they may be engaging in this activity. Exercise releases dopamine - the feel-good hormone - which provides people with an incentive for engaging in exercise.

However, exercise can become an addiction when the desire for physical fitness becomes an obsession. For example, when I served in the Marine Corps my desire to maintain a certain level of physical fitness became obsessive. I began to tie my career growth not only to how my body performed but the way that my body looked.

Because I was so obsessed with how my body looked I started focusing on eating less and exercising more. Like many people, I started to weigh less at first. After a while, I began to binge eat at night when I did “allow” myself to eat. My binge eating would contribute to feelings of guilt and a need to exercise more.

Can you relate? If so, you're not alone. Exercise addiction is a real phenomenon, and it can be tough to know when you've crossed the line into addiction territory. Fortunately, there are some clues that can help you figure it out. That’s why in the next section, we'll explore the signs of exercise addiction and offer tips for overcoming it.


How Do You Know You’re Addicted to Exercise

1. You're Working Out Way Too Much

While “too much” is subjective, the thing to be mindful of is when exercising becomes something you feel that you “have to” do. For instance, when I was addicted to exercise in the Marine Corps I felt that I had to work out more in order to maintain Marine Corps height and weight standards. In reality, I could have prioritized my nutrition more. The belief that I needed to exercise to be healthy was contributing to my addiction to exercise. If you notice that you’re exercising, because you feel you have to, that might be a clue that your exercise habits may not be as healthy as you think they are.

2. Your Workouts Are Impacting Your Quality of Life

There’s something to be said about prioritizing exercise during seasons when doing so is in alignment with your goals. By way of illustration, I’m currently training to run a half marathon in April. Therefore, I need to make sure I properly train for that race which requires me to run more than I normally would. Nonetheless, I still make sure to engage in non-exercise activities that I enjoy. If you’re finding that your fitness goals are taking away from you enjoying your life, then you may need to consider if exercise is becoming a dangerous addiction.

3. You're Experiencing Pain or Injury Because of Your Workouts

When I was in the Marine Corps there was a quote we often said: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Today I truly believe that quote is b.s. As someone with rheumatoid arthritis, I now know that pain is not something that I can ignore. For me, pain is a sign that I need to pause what I’m doing and ensure that I’m not pushing my body beyond its limits. The reason is that injury is not something that I can quickly recover from anymore. It can take months or even years for me to fully heal from an injury. Injury prevention is something I take extremely seriously. If you notice that your workouts are actually causing you pain, you are not being weak for taking a pause. You are being mindful if the workouts that you're choosing to do are improving your health or causing harm.

Even though awareness about exercise addition is essential, breaking the addiction is even more important. Without doing so, people can continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors that will only worsen over time. That’s why in this next section we’ll cover how to break the addiction to exercise.


How Do You Break the Addiction to Exercise

1. Get Support From A Professional

It should go without saying that when you’re dealing with an addiction it’s important to work with a professional that can support you in overcoming that addiction. Even though exercise addiction is not a recognized diagnosis by the American Psychological Association (APA) it doesn’t mean that you shouldn't seek treatment or support. Whether that’s a therapist, counselor, or support group, it’s important that you do not attempt to go on this journey alone. I can tell you first hand I took the solo route and I made the process of overcoming my addiction harder than it needed to be. Don’t make my mistake. Get the support that you need.

2. Ask Yourself Why You’re Exercising

It might seem like an obvious question, but we often don’t take the time to ask ourselves why we are doing something. In the case of exercising it’s important to understand what goal you’re actually trying to achieve. Case in point, when I left the Marine Corps I realized that my goal for exercise was no longer to lose weight. I truly wanted to get stronger and approach exercise differently. Whatever exercise you’re choosing to engage in, make sure that you’re clear on why you’re doing it.

3. Realize That You Don't Have to Exercise Daily

One of the most powerful things that you can do to break an addiction to exercise is to give yourself permission to take a break. Rest days are not for the weak. Rest days are for people who understand that we are not machines and that our bodies need rest in order to recover. Giving yourself permission to take a day off from working out is an act of self-care as much as it’s an act of self-love. Care for and love yourself enough to take the break that you deserve.


The good news is that breaking an addiction to exercise, like any other addiction, is possible. It may take some time and effort, but with the right support system in place, you can overcome your addiction and get back to a healthy relationship with exercise. If you’ve struggled and broken free from exercise addiction, please share your story in the comments below. We’d love to hear and be inspired by you!


Legg, T.J. (2017, August 4). Exercise addiction. Healthline.