Identifying the Dangers of Exercise Addictions

With the holidays approaching and a new year on the horizon, healthy resolutions will soon abound – and exercise is usually high on the list. Although working up a sweat can offer many benefits, an exercise addiction can harm both physical and mental health. When friends, family, and co-workers know what to look for, they can better identify if a loved one has an unhealthy addiction to exercise and provide intervention and support.


What is exercise addiction?

Regular exercise plays an important role in maintaining health. However, sometimes people exercise to the point of hurting themselves – yet are unable to stop. That’s when exercise becomes unhealthy, and a potentially dangerous addiction. Dr. Michele Kerulis, core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern, the online Master’s in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, explains, “Exercise addiction is a process addiction, which is a behavioral addiction or compulsion to interact or to act in a certain way.” People with process addictions, have this urge – even if it negatively impacts health and daily living.

This unhealthy habit is more common than you may think. Some studies suggest about three percent of people who exercise regularly are addicted. Exercise causes the release of neurotransmitters that can relieve pain and improve mood, so those who are addicted or dependent might experience negative psychological and physical side effects such as depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion when they miss an exercise fix.


What are the signs of a problem?

Although it can be difficult to clearly identify whether or not someone is struggling with an exercise addiction, there are signs that a problem may exist. A recent post by Counseling@Northwestern offers a few basic descriptions:

Healthy exercise is motivated by health and adds to quality of life.
At-risk exercise is used to reduce anxiety and other moods.
Problematic exercise is defined by negative consequences, like injuries. It may also be present when an individual organizes activities around exercise.
Exercise addiction is indicated when exercise is necessary to avoid guilt or anxiety, continues despite injuries, and interferes with daily life functions.

Here are some signs of exercise addiction:

Time: Spending an inordinate amount of time exercising.
Intention: Exercising longer than planned.
Tolerance: Having to increase exercise to achieve desired goals.
Withdrawal: Feeling anxious or fatigued if you do not exercise.
Continuance: Continuing to exercise despite injuries.
Conflict: Skipping commitments like social functions or work to exercise.
Loss of Control: Trying but failing to stop or reduce exercise.


How can loved ones help?

Dr. Kerulis says, “It’s perfectly acceptable for friends or family members to have open conversations with their loved ones to say, ‘I noticed something different in you and I’m concerned about this behavior’.” If you are worried someone you care about has an exercise addiction, talk about it with them. Use a caring approach and cite specific concerns. Encourage the person to seek guidance from qualified professionals, such as a counselor, who can help set realistic goals, address unhealthy habits, and provide recommendations.


Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.



Our publishing division, Trigger, published a story exploring exactly these themes.

Gemma Bell took her exercise regime to the extreme. She explains it all in her memoir, Running with Robins! Here’s what to expect …

Gemma Bell lived healthily and happily with her family until her life was thrown into turmoil. While she was still school-age, Gemma’s dad died from cancer. Losing her dad at such an early age had a profound effect on Gemma, and she became desperate to find a way of reconnecting with his memory. Inspired by her dad’s love of running, Gemma started to follow in his footsteps. But it wasn’t long until the running took over her life …