Regular exercise is essential for optimal physical and emotional health but is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults complete 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or an equivalent combination weekly. Muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at moderate to vigorous intensity are recommended at least twice per week.
Diagnosing a fitness addiction involves more than just the amount of exercise an individual completes. As a behavioral addiction, there is a mental component as well.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has defined criteria for behavioral addictions. A study by Freimuth et al. (2011) elaborates on the criteria as it relates to exercise:
TOLERANCE: increasing the amount of exercise in order to feel the desired effect, be it a” buzz” or sense of accomplishment
WITHDRAWAL: in the absence of exercise the person experiences negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness and sleep problems
LACK OF CONTROL: unsuccessful at attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising for a certain period of time
INTENTION EFFECTS: unable to stick to one’s intended routine as evidenced by exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise or consistently going beyond the intended amount
TIME: a great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in and recovering from exercise
REDUCTION IN OTHER ACTIVITIES: as a direct result of exercise, social, occupational and/or recreational activities occur less often or are stopped
CONTINUANCE: continuing to exercise despite knowing that this activity is creating or exacerbating physical, psychological and/or interpersonal problems
While regular exercise is an important piece of individual wellness, it is imperative to keep habits in a healthy perspective. Looking forward to a workout, using it to help combat stress, enhance sleep and socializing with gym buddies are all positive ways to engage in physical activity.
When exercise becomes an obsession, it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and vice versa. Overdoing the amount or intensity of exercise can lead to injury or excessive weight loss. According to The Family Institute at Northwestern University, approximately 45% of people with an eating disorder also experience an exercise compulsion. While exercise is a good tool to incorporate into a weight loss or weight maintenance regime, the dose of exercise must equate to the proper goals of a healthy weight for each individual.
The Family Institute at Northwestern University discusses strategies that counselors can use with clients who have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. These include setting realistic fitness goals, discussing what a healthy exercise plan looks like, connecting to other professional resources such as therapists, dietitians and other health professionals, suggesting alternative movement activities that are less strenuous and educating clients about the physiological effects of overexertion.
While exercise is a healthy habit, it can become a psychological compulsion. Concerns about body image, competition or other factors can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with exercise. If you or someone you know seems to have an excessive concern over exercise duration, calories burned or other movement habits, consider seeking professional help to get to the root of the issue. Seeking guidance can help avoid injury as well as other long-term physical and emotional effects of overtraining.