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Exercise and Recovery: Understanding Exercise Addiction

Exercise and Recovery: Understanding Exercise Addiction

So you are new to recovery from some form of substance abuse. You learned and experienced in treatment that exercise is of great benefit to you. It has aided you in reducing your stress, decreasing your anxiety and  improving your mood. You feel better about yourself and your body as a result. It taught you that you can overcome adverse conditions thus cultivating your self-confidence.  

Some of your friends and family have begun to verbalize concern about your exercising. They have even mentioned that you are becoming addicted to exercise. You find yourself firing back at them when the topic comes up that exercise is good for you and it is better than using heroin.  However, part of you secretly wonders if it is true. Are you replacing one addiction with another?  

Is there such a thing as exercise addiction? According to Psychology Today, it is a “legitimate problem whose prevalence is thought to be highest amongst triathletes, runners, and individuals who suffer from eating disorders.”

A published review from 2012 estimated that about 2.5 to 3.5 percent of the general exercising public may be affected by exercise addiction. The National Center for Biotechnology Information has published a number of studies attempting to understand and define exercise addiction. However, the American Psychiatric Association has not recognized it as a primary disorder.  

Despite the conflicting data as to whether exercise addiction exists, there are some agreed upon symptoms identified by various researchers regarding exercise addiction: tolerance, withdrawal, inability to limit amount of time engaged in exercise, reduction in other activities to engage in exercise, and continuing to engage in the exercise despite the negative effects it is having.  

To put these symptoms into actions that are recognizable, those addicted to exercise may feel driven to work out daily, for long periods of time, and do so even through illness and injury.   The person may miss so much work (due to exercising, recovering from, or preparing to exercise) that they can no longer successfully pay their bills, and /or is spending more than they can afford on equipment. The person may express increased stress levels when not exercising, and may display irritability, frustration and the inability to concentrate when not engaging in exercise.  

Do some of these sound familiar? These are some of the same criteria for substance abuse disorder.   The symptoms of exercise addiction seem to parallel substance abuse, but what about the effects?  Individuals who engage in exercise addiction may find themselves suffering from injuries due to repetitive motion, fractures due to overuse, and muscle damage due to overtraining.  They may also begin to experience irregular heartbeats and enlargement of the heart.  

Exercise addiction may also take a significant toll on a person’s family, work, and social life as more and more time is dedicated to exercising since it has become the main priority. Family and friends may accept the heavy training schedule, because a specific performance is the goal, a marathon or triathlon for example, with the expectation that a more normal lifestyle will resume after the event. However, the event comes and goes and the behavior remains the same. Again, the toll seems to be equivalent to that of substance abuse.

You find yourself asking since exercise addiction is a possibility, and recall you were taught in treatment that once a person has been addicted to one substance they can more easily cross over to another addiction, should you exercise at all?  

Yet, you recognize that exercise has been good for you. It has improved your mood by decreasing your depression and anxiety, as well as improving how you respond to stress. You also know it has been shown to reduce cravings for substances, for those who abuse alcohol, illegal drugs and/or some prescribed drugs, and believe it has assisted you with cravings and filled your time. In addition, you have made some new friends and begun to develop a positive support network as a result of working out through The Phoenix or fitness center.  

So the question remains: should you stop exercising?


The answer lies in whether you can exercise in moderation and have a balanced lifestyle. Do the symptoms above describe you? Has exercise become a compulsion? Look inside and you will know the answer.

Here at The Foundry, we know how important physical fitness can be to recovery, and have created an entire Wellness Program centered on yoga, hiking, cycling, snowshoeing, gym fitness as well as countless other activities related to well-being. In the beautiful state of Colorado, receiving drug and alcohol treatment at a recovery center in a beautiful setting can show you how beneficial exercise and the outdoors can be for the body, mind and spirit. We can help cultivate your interested in fitness and help you understand how to keep this new (or reignited) passion healthy.

Jasmine Aranda, LPC, LAC, is the Chief Quality & Compliance Officer at The Foundry Treatment Center Steamboat, a rehab and substance abuse treatment center in Colorado, providing clinical therapy services for Foundry participants to help envision a life after recovery. The Foundry provides nearly double the therapy time of a traditional treatment program to provide the guidance and support needed for lasting recovery.

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