When Workout Endorphins Replace Unhealthy Addictions

Close View Salad at Gym

On the face of it, getting fitter is great. But when exercise gets out of hand, can it become just one more addiction?

You’ve had a tough day at work. You can feel stress clawing at your nerves. You need to do something to calm yourself, find some way to redirect that negative energy. Other people might light a cigarette, reach for comfort food, or find the nearest bar. You head to the gym. Is lifting your drug?

Plenty of folk step into the squat rack to sooth the frustrations of a stressful day. Others work out to fill empty hours which might otherwise be lonely. Most of us get started on this fitness journey for healthy, positive reasons. And good nutrition and lifting weights are healthy lifestyle changes for the majority. But for some people, the hobby becomes an obsession which takes up way too much time, energy, and head space. Can fitness be an addiction? Can competing be a bad habit?

Fitness can be addictive. The “happy hormones” from exercise feel like the high from drinking or drug use. Expert studies show that intense lifting boosts brain chemicals (including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline) . These are the same chemicals sparked by the most addictive legal and illegal drugs. Research into this area of mental health and psychology is being put to good use. Work led by Madhukar H. Trivedi, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is helping practitioners prescribe exercise to treat depression. But do some people abuse that workout high to avoid facing the emotional pain of addiction? The exercise industry and the addiction recovery industry in the US are worth roughly the same amount ($20bn each).

Self-control is implicit in physique sports. But some of the behaviors we develop to reach our goals walk a fine line between control and obsession.

Tracking macros…

Logging meals…

Weighing food…

Are these the tools of a dedicated athlete with laser-beam focus? Or can they be a form of addiction? So what, you might say. Surely exercising is a preferable addiction to any kind of eating disorder or substance abuse. Even at its most obsessive, working out is healthier than a drug. And you’d be right. But look beneath the transformation stories, the before-and-afters, and there is a dark side to the fitness industry. What starts out as a little self-control to diet down for a local show can spiral into an unhealthy relationship.

We already know that obsession and self-control take many forms. Food (and eating disorders) is a particularly visible one. But how about the less socially acknowledged obsessive behaviors. Does “eating clean” and “getting lean” offer people with a history of substance abuse a more “acceptable” outlet for their obsession?

Working out can be a crucial tool for people who are trying to stay clean. But for some people, excessive exercise can be equally addictive. Take one of the subjects in Prof Trivedi’s two-year clinical trial. The former meth addict and heavy drinker became a Crossfit athlete after discovering intense exercise. She says it keeps her clean and sober.

Clinical studies show clear neurological links between exercise and addiction recovery. Exercise causes neuroplasticity, helping the nervous system heal itself by building new pathways. But there needs to be a sweet spot, or exercise itself becomes another form of disassociation.

Nobody with an addictive personality can just switch off that side of their character. So type-A folk in the fitness industry need to find a way to maintain perspective. Exercise has to be sustainable for it to be a constructive, not destructive. We need to balance the drive to meet personal expectations with satisfaction in our achievements. Dose it just right, and exercise can help us recognize our limits and celebrate our abilities.

Having a goal and working hard to achieve it is always positive. Just be sure to enjoy the journey and recognize your achievements along the way.