In recovery from eating disorders and addiction, many people commonly work a twelve step program to support their recovery, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Eating Disorders Anonymous. In these fellowships, sometimes you may hear someone talk about “outside addictions.” This refers to the compulsive behaviors that some people develop in recovery due to mental health issues, addictive or negative thinking, or poor coping mechanisms. Exercise addiction is one of the many “replacement addictions” or compulsive behaviors recovering individuals can develop, particularly for women in recovery from an eating disorder. It’s important to recognize the signs of an exercise addiction so that it can be effectively treated if it crops up in sobriety.
What is Exercise Addiction?
Exercise addiction can look different depending on the individual, but it is commonly associated with eating disorders. For women in recovery from an eating disorder, this “secondary” addiction may take over and replace the primary addiction as they recover from their identified condition. It is defined as compulsive and excessive exercise despite negative consequences on health, emotions, relationships, work, or daily routine. For some people, this may mean going to the gym several times a day. For others, prioritizing exercise over commitments like work or family engagements may be a sign of exercise addiction. Some individuals choose to exercise even when injured, damaging their health. Regardless of its manifestation, having an exercise addiction can be just as dangerous as any other compulsive behavior pattern. In eating disorder recovery, an individual may still struggle with body image, control issues, or negative self-talk, all of which can create a need for a release. Exercise can be a healthy way to practice self-care, but when it becomes obsessive and more important than anything else, it can be very harmful. Dealing with emotions and urges to act out on substance dependency or an eating disorder must be done in a healthy way in order to avoid the development of this compulsive behavior. It’s important for people in recovery to develop and maintain a healthy balance in order to prevent a healthy coping skill, like exercise, from becoming a dangerous fixation.
Symptoms of Exercise Addiction
Like addiction or eating disorders, exercise addictions can be subtle. As addicts, alcoholics, or eating disordered individuals in recovery, we are often very adept at hiding our behaviors in order to successfully continue engaging in our unhealthy patterns. In fact, we can even justify our clearly damaging choices even to ourselves if we aren’t careful. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant in maintaining our health and keeping an eye out for signs of behavioral addictions. While it’s different for everyone, some of the common signs that someone is living with an exercise addiction are:
- Exercising when sick, injured, or very fatigued
- Sacrificing hobbies, time with family and friends, and other interests in order to make more time to exercise
- Experiencing anxiety, distress, or depression when unable to exercise
- Missing important commitments in order to exercise
- Spending an excessive amount of time at the gym
- Frequently pushing one’s body past its physical limit when exercising
- Friends and family expressing concern over amount of time spent exercising
- Extreme changes in weight
- Inability to concentrate on daily routine or work because of preoccupation with exercise or making time for the gym
- Inability to give oneself a day off to recover from exercising
- Experiencing withdrawal when unable to exercise, including restlessness and inability to sleep
- Needing to increase the amount of time spent exercising to experience the same effects
- Feeling “buzzed” after a workout and chasing that feeling
- Conflict with loved ones over how much time is spent at the gym
Exercise addiction can be detrimental to every aspect of an individual’s health. In addition to physical injury, over-exercising can cause a weakened immune system, dehydration, insomnia, depression, anxiety, poor body image, dangerous weight loss, conflict with work, and interpersonal relationship issues.
Treating Exercise Addiction
Treatment for exercise addiction is complex and requires a comprehensive and individualized approach. For some people in recovery, it can lead to a relapse of an eating disorder or substance use and must be addressed before it reaches this point. For others, exercise addiction can be the primary compulsive behavior from which they suffer, and may require treatment. In any case, effective treatment for exercise addiction must include physical as well as mental health care. At Willow Place for Women, we offer the highest-quality treatment for people who suffer from compulsive behaviors. f you need help, call us today at 1-888-651-4212.