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Is It Possible to Exercise Too Much?

When it comes to fitness, it's possible to have too much of a good thing.

Key points

  • Some researchers argue that "exercise addiction" is characterized by an inability to control exercising behavior.
  • Exercise addiction is not a recognized diagnosis.
  • Whether an "addiction" or not, compulsive or excessive exercise can have negative effects.
  • It is associated with an increased risk of physical injury, psychological distress, and eating disorders, as well as relationship challenges.

When we talk about addicts, we normally think of people who take drugs or drink too much. But some people argue that humans can become addicted to many activities, including those that are harmless or even helpful in moderation. (Whether these compulsive behaviors can be classified as true "addictions," however, is widely debated; apart from gambling, no behavioral addictions are currently recognized in the DSM-5.)

Activities that in small to moderate doses are beneficial and even encouraged are particularly unlikely to be viewed as problematic. But that is not always true. Even for healthy activities, more is not always better. Research explains.

Image by Scott Webb from Pixabay
Source: Image by Scott Webb from Pixabay

Is "Exercise Addiction" Real?

Débora Godoy-Izquierdo et al. (2021) explored the potential problem of "exercise addiction" within an athletic population. [i] The researchers defined exercise addiction (EA) as involving “excessive concerns for exercise routines, an abusive practice, and the inability to control one’s own behavior, as well as the presence of psychological processes that are typical of behavioral addictions such as abstinence.” This proposed definition is similar to other types of addictions which are characterized by an inability to control behavior, and discomfort with the thought of abstinence.

Godoy-Izquierdo et al. suggest that EA, as they define it, is linked with a change in functioning on both a personal and professional level and an increased risk for pathologies, including physical injury or psychological distress; problematic exercise habits have also been associated with eating disorders. In fact, they argue that the prevalence of compulsive exercising can be as high as 80 percent when co-occurring with eating disorders.

Fitness-Minded or Fanatical?

When it comes to exercise, how do we distinguish healthy from harmful? Godoy-Izquierdo et al. explain that, unlike moderate, healthy fitness routines, problematic exercise involves exercising behavior that is abusive, extreme, unhealthy, and compulsive. It often involves over-exercising, even when physically compromised, and a preoccupation with exercise activity. In addition, they note that problematic exercise can have physiological and psychological consequences including physical pain, injury, depression, stress, a desire to use steroids, sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, and decreased performance.

How can someone tell if routine physical activity has crossed the line into being harmful? Godoy-Izquierdo et al. argue that problematic exercise is a multidimensional pattern of significant impairment and distress, characterized by symptoms that include a growing tolerance to increasing amounts of exercise, excessive time spent exercising, a seeming inability to control behavior, and a reduction in other types of behavior because of time devoted to exercise, all of which may adversely impact other relationships and obligations. Accordingly, in this sense, friends and family may be the first to notice that someone has developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise.

A Culture of Competition

Unlike many people who exercise to relieve stress, clear their mind, or simply partake in an enjoyable activity, competitive sports presents a unique set of stressors. Because of this, Godoy-Izquierdo et al. argue that there may be a link between athletic participation and so-called "exercise addiction," which could prompt not only physical and psychological distress and harm but the premature end of a sporting career—as well as, in rare cases, possible death or suicide. Because elite athletes are expected to perform at high levels, both physically and mentally, the demands of this competitive “success” culture could compromise health and functioning.

The challenge is finding the dividing line between athletes whose training routines reflect commitment versus those who are behaving in unhealthy or problematic ways. The cognitive and behavioral aspects of compulsive exercise can be used to help detect the difference, in order to enhance athletic performance while protecting the athlete.

We can take a lesson from the professionals here. Similar to other types of compulsive or excessive behavior, when it comes to exercise, the model for success is moderation.

References

[i] Godoy-Izquierdo, Débora, Estefanía Navarrón, Clara López-Mora, and Juan González-Hernández. 2021. “Exercise Addiction in the Sports Context: What Is Known and What Is yet to Be Known.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, September. doi:10.1007/s11469-021-00641-9.

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