Exercise Addiction: Balancing the Benefits and Risks for Mental Health
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Exercise Addiction: Balancing the Benefits and Risks for Mental Health


Exercising and physical activity are quite necessary, for a healthy body holds space for a healthy mind. In addition to improving physical fitness, exercise has been proven effective in elevating mood and reducing anxiety and stress levels. However, over-exercising is not healthy for one’s mind and can have repercussions too. In the words of Dorothy Draper, “Too much of anything is the beginning of a mess”. This means excess of anything is not good for oneself. Life is all about creating a balance. Exercising regularly for better health is recommended, but an excess of it can be detrimental if it becomes an addiction.

Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is a pattern of behaviour, characterised by increased exercise frequency and intensity, in a desire to lose weight, which at some point ceases to be a pleasurable activity and follows a pattern similar to that seen in drug-related and behavioural addictions (Taran, 2018). One may become obsessed with exercise, often pushing themselves to their physical limits. This can result in withdrawal symptoms when the individual is unable to exercise leading to negative effects on mental health. 

Differentiating Healthy Commitment from Unhealthy Addiction

A common question that can occur is what makes an ordinary gym-goer different from an exercise addict? Even though highly committed runners and athletes may exhibit extreme dedication to their training, this does not always translate into addiction. Distinguishing between a typical gym enthusiast and someone with actual exercise addiction involves recognising subtle differences in their behaviour.

Similar to that of substance dependence, Hausenblas and Downs (2002) outlined specific criteria for identifying exercise addiction. These include increasing the intensity and frequency of exercise to get the desired results, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when refraining from exercising, finding it difficult to control or cut back on workouts, spending too much time exercising while compromising other activities or continuing to exercise despite its detrimental effects. Knowing these standards makes it easier to distinguish between healthy commitment and possibly addictive behaviour.

Read More: The Psychology of Addiction

Risks of Over-Exercising on Mental Health

Research has shown that the psychological advantages of physical activity are similar to those of psychotherapy. The primary effect of exercise for healthy individuals may be prevention or control of diseases, whereas it may also be therapeutic for those experiencing mild to moderate emotional distress. However, over-indulgence can cause considerable harm to one’s health and well-being. The potential risks associated with exercise addiction can involve several physical imbalances. According to a report by Indian Express, exercising excessively without sufficient rest disrupts hormones, leading to weight gain, fatigue and muscle loss. It not only strains the body but can also cause joint damage, and muscle pain and interfere with the levels of immunity.

Overtraining also disrupts appetite and sleep patterns which can make a person vulnerable to several mental health issues including depression. Apart from this, it has been theorised that exercise addiction might be a maladaptive coping strategy as a means to escape from psychological difficulties. In addition to this, exercise might resemble a self-medicating coping pattern and is being used for affect regulation and stress relief.

It is also possible that exercise addiction might be related to emotional dysregulation and higher levels of alexithymia (a condition characterised by difficulty identifying and expressing emotions) which are also commonly found in substance use disorders (De Berardis et al., 2020). The human mind is quite fascinating and certain behaviours often defy conventional understanding. Many people derive satisfaction through physical exertion. It is a different kind of pleasure—a way of seeking pleasure out of pain. For some, the act of inflicting physical pain provides them temporary relief from ongoing emotional distress. 

Breaking the Cycle: Finding a Balance 

For awareness leads to change, now that one knows the ill effects of exercise addiction, it is relatively easier to take active steps to change such harmful behaviour. One can incorporate any of the following ideas or try combining a few and break the cycle by finding a balance between a healthy commitment to exercise and the advantages associated with it–

1. Low Impact Exercises

One can go for low-impact exercises as they offer a respite from intense training while still encouraging physical activity, making them a good substitute for people struggling with an addiction to exercise. This can include activities like walking, swimming or cycling. These can provide the benefits of movement without causing much physical strain, promoting a well-rounded strategy for health and fitness. 

Read More: Why Is Exercise And Good Nutrition So Important For A Healthy Brain?

2. Create an Effective Routine

This can include making an age-specific workout plan, a balanced diet and customising the exercise schedule. If required, one can reach out to a trainer who can help in adjusting the programme to the needs and capabilities of different age groups in order to attain maximum health advantages. For instance, as responsibilities increase between ages 30 and 40, finding a balance between exercise and other activities becomes important. Consider adjusting workout intensity and frequency to align with changing health concerns. Prioritise cardiovascular health with aerobic activity and incorporate strength training to counteract age-related muscle loss. Maintaining activity levels throughout the day can also be facilitated by including exercises like stretching breaks and brisk walks.

Read More: Building a Strong Mind: Practical Steps for Enhancing Psychological Resilience

3. Incorporating Yoga into Practice

It is one of the best ways of creating a balance between physical and mental health. Yoga not only works on physical components of health like strength, flexibility, speed and endurance; but also improves mental well-being through mindfulness and deep breathing. It is also an alternative form of psychotherapy and can be adapted to deal with exercise addiction. 

Read More: Yoga & Psychology: Bridging Ancient & Modern Wisdom

4. Gradual Progression

Interestingly, our bodies are designed to adapt to the demands we put on them, thus, becoming stronger and more prepared over time. The concept of Progressive Overload (in the context of exercising) suggests that we must gradually increase the intensity of our workouts to continue progressing. Starting slowly with eight to 10 reps at a time, allowing for recovery between sets and avoiding overexertion are key principles. There are several benefits to slow and rhythmic exercise over high-intensity exercises, such as reduced chance of injury, enhanced muscle engagement and a deeper understanding of body mechanics.

Read More: The Heaviest Meditation

5. Allow Recovery Time 

It is important to listen to our body. If we experience discomfort, whether physical or mental, it is essential to pause and reassess. Taking a day off from time to time, and letting your body recover from overexertion is necessary. You can still take care of your fitness by tackling it strategically, in a way that meets your desirable demands too, and doesn’t cost your mental health in the long run. Remember to be kind to yourself!

Read More: Self Care: What It Is And What It Isn’t

Take Away

It is recommended to weigh the advantages of exercise against the dangers of overindulging in it and to recognise that the key to treating exercise addiction is moderation, rather than abstinence. According to Griffiths (2005), abstinence from exercise may not be the necessary goal in the treatment of this addiction. One of the usual therapeutic goals will be to get back to moderate exercise because it is considered to be healthy. For instance, a runner may be advised to switch to swimming. Other times, the individual could stick to a more modest or restricted regimen of the same kind of activity. In other cases an individual may continue to do the same kind of activity, but more cautiously or under restraint. Thus, while exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, overdoing it can be harmful to one’s mental health. People may cultivate a balanced attitude to fitness that supports their physical and emotional well-being but not at the cost of their mental health. It is not about the quantity of exercise, rather it’s about the benefits that it elicits. 

References +
  • Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying Exercise Addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International Journal of Environmental  Research and Public Health/International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(10), 4069–4081. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph8104069 
  • Mehta, M. (2024, February 28). Are you over-exercising? Here are its symptoms and side effects. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/health-wellness/gym-rat-body-when-extra-time-9183741/
  • Mehta, M. (2023, July 25). How much is too much exercise? What is an ideal and effective routine for each age group? The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/health-wellness/exercise-intensity-ideal-effective-routine-age-groups-8859654/lite/#amp_tf=From%20%251%24s&aoh=17137567656480&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com
  • Meyer, M., Sattler, I., Schilling, H., Lang, U. E., Schmidt, A., Colledge, F., & Walter, M. (2021). Mental Disorders in Individuals With Exercise Addiction—A Cross-Sectional Study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.751550
  • Raglin J. S. (1990). Exercise and mental health. Beneficial and detrimental effects. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 9(6), 323–329. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199009060-00001

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