Regular workouts combined with a nutritious diet and adequate rest are key to leading a healthy life. Setting fitness goals warrants pushing the physical thresholds as well. However, there’s a fine line between overtraining and systematically pushing fitness levels. Then comes the often missed or misinterpreted situation — exercise addiction.
Characterised by obsessive behaviour, exercise addiction refers to a mental health condition that warrants extensive discussion within fitness circles. Many, silently or unknowingly, suffer from this disorder, experiencing injuries, stress and disruptions in their every day schedules.
Several factors can steer an individual towards exercise addiction, with the percentage of those affected increasing gradually.
What is exercise addiction?
Exercise addiction refers to a condition where healthy behaviour turns into an obsession. In other words, one becomes addicted to working out. They experience an uncontrollable urge to exercise, lose control of their behaviour and ignore their professional and personal responsibilities.
A study which explored the pattern of exercise behaviour in India concluded that 5.8 per cent of the total participants were at risk of exercise addiction. Lack of exercise disrupted their sleep pattern, and many struggled to manage without working out for more than two consecutive days.
Using exercise as a coping mechanism
“Exercise addiction can also be accompanied by several associated complications, which include addiction to other things [like caffeine, stimulants and shopping], coping mechanisms to manage stress, eating disorders, etc.,” says Dr Manoj Sharma, coordinator at SHUT clinic, department of psychology, NIMHANS, Bengaluru. “These complications can also trigger exercise addiction in some cases.”
Besides stress, body image issues can also lead to exercise addiction. “Certain people are concerned about their appearance and try out various exercise routines to address it,” says Dr Sharma. “In addition, exercise causes the release of happy hormones (serotonin and dopamine). As a result, some people continue to work out as it provides a sense of happiness, separating them from the stress of every day life. This is known as negative coping.”
Such negative coping mechanisms can eventually lead to addiction.
How athletes differ from exercise addicts
Elite athletes train extensively; the same is true for someone who is addicted to exercise. However, Dr Sharma insists that they are not the same. “Exhaustion and physical injuries can occur for both. However, athletes work towards achieving a definite goal, while exercise addicts chase the feeling of happiness. Sportspersons are in control of their purpose for physical activity, whereas those addicted cannot control the urge to work out and have a strong desire to ignore their day-to-day responsibilities,” he explains.
Enjoying the journey is key
“One needs to understand that while fitness should be a part of your lifestyle, it should not take over your entire life,” says Bhupendra Dalal, a senior fitness trainer from New Delhi.
“Fitness is a journey that needs to be enjoyed; however, we see people working out for long hours, which is not needed at all,” adds Dalal. “Patience is key. Nowadays, youngsters want to build muscles quickly. However, they must understand that progress doesn’t happen overnight. It depends on the combination of regular workouts, a healthy diet and adequate rest. It is also important to realise that the progress will vary depending on the body composition of the individual.”
Exercise addiction can send one into an unhappy spiral over time. Hence, the key is to listen to your body and set goals without compromising on happiness.
- Exercise addiction refers to an obsessive behaviour where the person cannot control the urge to work out despite being aware of its negative consequences.
- Body image issues and other associated complications (like eating disorders and caffeine addiction) can also trigger exercise addiction.
- Athletes work out to achieve a definite goal, while exercise addicts chase the feeling of happiness. This is known as negative coping.
- One should listen to their body and set goals without compromising on happiness.