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Identifying Exercise Addiction

Alice Huaut

May 11th, 2023

Exercising is a well-known activity synonymous with good health and increased longevity. Benefits include: better sleep, a more effective immune system, the ability to remain focused, and boosted self-esteem. However, increasingly the popularization of leisure exercise is paired with commercial aims. Influenceurs construct workout plans and advise individuals on dietary practices, all of which associate exercise with a means to achieve an end rather than the end itself. “More muscles, more likes”. This saying is reflected on social media platforms but also diffuses into minds searching for a perfect body. This article will address the potentially addictive character exercising can withhold, which individuals are most prone to these practices, and how it can be prevented.

Engaging in physical activity to maintain general fitness and strength is often achieved through a sport such as strength training, running, swimming, squash, or soccer. A common trend observed shows that individuals are usually more physically active at the beginning of their lives and gradually become less active. Children and young adults may join sports clubs and are often required to exercise as part of the school curriculum. Individuals become increasingly more sedentary throughout their lives because they are used to exercise as part of a performance instead of an area of expertise. Solely relying on performance may discourage individuals as they age since they naturally require more recovery time. This explanation echoes the analysis of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards associated with exercise and its addictive potential. For instance, winning a trophy is an extrinsic reward, while the "runner’s high" reward is intrinsic. Individuals with a more extrinsic approach are less prone to develop feelings of withdrawal when they stop exercising. While coaches worldwide want to be driven, confident, and focused athletes, the practice can still be associated with an extrinsic reward. This is challenging as athletes identify themselves with their performance. As a result, the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards is blurred.

Individuals can be categorized into groups to analyze who may be most prone to developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise. For example, maintaining physical fitness is essential for specific jobs such as building workers, dancers, firefighters, and professional athletes. Although more studies for athletes remain limited concerning exercise addiction compared to recreational exercise, studies on individuals exercising as part of their job remain even more limited. Consequently, the risks of exercise addiction and the benefits of a healthy practice should be more addressed since many precursing indicators of addiction are ignored.

Furthermore, the manifestations of exercise addiction vary depending on gender, especially for recreational physical fitness practice. Exercise fuels an individual's brain with endorphins and gives a sentiment of reward. Exercise addiction can be concerned solely by the need to move and exercise. However, it is often partnered with specific body dysmorphic disorders such as bigorexia, anorexia, or orthorexia. A variant of body dysmorphic disorder is bigorexia: defined by an overwhelming dissatisfaction with physical size and muscularity. Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by excessive exercise and not eating enough. Orthorexia nervosa is an obsession with healthy eating and mental anguish over perceived unhealthy food choices. Male bodybuilders are more prone to bigorexia, anorexia is more common in girls and women with low self-esteem, and orthorexia affects more women than men. Knowing that these disorders exist and their relationship to exercise helps reduce their prevalence.

Determining if an individual is passionate and in control or if exercise has taken control over them is challenging. According to Marilyn Freimuth, three or more of these selected criteria help identify exercise dependence: (1) exercise increase to satisfy a desirable effect, (2) withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety when an individual stops exercising, (3) regularly going over the time of an exercise routine, (4) not being able to decrease the time spent exercising, (5) exercising for long periods without rest, (6) “social or recreational activities are given up because of exercise”, and (7) exercising while aware that the practice is detrimental for an individual's psychological and physical well-being. Besides these criteria, personality can also increase the likelihood of exercise dependency. “There is a positive relationship between exercise dependence and perfectionism, trait anxiety and obsessive compulsiveness.”

Furthermore, exercise addiction studies reiterate the difficult distinction that should be made between exercise addiction and healthy exercise practices. A narrowing down of the observed criteria includes four phases of addiction: (1) Recreational exercise, when an individual will exercise, finding it rewarding and enjoyable, (2) At risk exercise, when an individual’s “motivation to exercise will change from enjoyment to relief from stress”, (3) Problematic exercise, when an individual starts to feel withdrawal symptoms if they do not exercise as much as they want to and will be pushing themselves constantly, (4) Exercise addiction, “exercise becomes a person's life”. The primary driving force during this final stage is to prevent withdrawal symptoms. As a result, exercise negatively influences social and work lives.

Doctor David Ragsdale, a recognized professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery of McGill University, reminds individuals that we do not recognize how the brain regularly creates cognition and consciousness or how brain networks create memory storage. Likewise, the mind of athletes and individuals with unhealthy exercising practices requires more research as there may be a fine line between what is perceived as passion and determination compared to an addiction. The indicators given in this article serve as guidelines, which should be more widely known but are not exact measures.

Edited by: Youssef Eljarray

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