Here’s how to identify and treat exercise addiction

Exercise addiction usually starts with a desire for physical fitness. An eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, may lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise. A body dysmorphic disorder, or body image disorder, may also cause exercise addiction

Here’s how to identify and treat exercise addiction
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Addiction to ‘drugs’ (or substances; a better scientific term) are known since ages. Not much surprisingly, certain behaviours can be addictive too, though the attention over them is a recent development.

The increased usage of smartphones, the Internet, and online gaming is a real cause of concern by the end of 2017. And to add the list, even exercise is turning addictive these days and its outcomes are not always positive or healthy.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a social problem with a neurobiological background. We all can get addicted, but some are more prone to it because of their brain circuits and psychological pattern or thinking.

Intense craving, gradually increasing the amount/time, withdrawal when not getting the desired thing, neglecting other areas of life/work, use despite persistent harm and physical and psychological health are among the common symptoms and behaviours in addiction.

These presentations can be similarly prominent when the addiction is of some behaviour or practice like exercise too!

The evolution of the concept of exercise addiction

Exercise has always been considered as a healthy practice. Huge workload, busy schedules and long lists of deadlines are often obstacles for regular exercise. But there is other end of the story too.

The trend post the 70’s of the ‘slimmer the better’ has got a new stimulus with Facebook, Instagram and other social media applications and need to look ‘sexy’ always.

 Here’s how to identify and treat exercise addiction
Dr Tanay Maiti

The availability of gyms, slimming centres, and herbal pills have made the problem even bigger. ‘Selfie’ phones are ‘the most wanted’ in 2017, to the extent that companies just talk about the cameras/selfies in their promotion, while the ‘usual’ use of a (smart) phone has turned quite secondary.

Associated psychiatric problems:

Exercise addiction is yet to be considered as a separate diagnosis both by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychological Association (APA).

However the manifestation could be a part or major manifestation of various other problems. Eating disorders, both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are much common with people who actually ‘lives’ for gyming and exercising.

Bingeing on food and beverages in parties, followed by massive guilt, hence sweating out at gym for long hours ‘to burn the calorie’ is not uncommon. Body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and anxiety issues can be the underlying problem as well.

Physical hazards of exercise addiction:

Excessive exercise after a hectic day without proper food or hydration can leads to muscle cramps. It can also cause ligament tears. The situation can turn worse if people continue (or, rather can’t live without!) exercise leading to permanent injury and/or deformity.

The constant urge to push themselves a little more often unknowingly affects their heart and sudden death while running on the treadmills are not heard off.

Signs to look out for:

  • Exercising alone and at odd hours of the day
  • Having a gym at home
  • Taking gym selfies and uploading them
  • Continuing exercise despite pain or injury
  • Following an excessively strict diet
  • Compulsive need to eat healthy food


There is no proven (evidence based) medicine which we can say as first line of choice at this point of time. Structured and goal-specific counselling following the principles of cognitive and behaviour therapy can show some response, however the expertise and experience of the therapist matters markedly for obvious reasons.

Not to forget, understanding the other illnesses (both physical and psychological origin) and addressing them accordingly is very important, as an untreated underlying issue only worsens the condition.

The author is a Psychiatrist at Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore, Tamil Nadu