The Truth About Exercise Addiction
Many people become physically active to look and feel better and to get healthy. But physical activity may become addictive for a small number of people. So how many of us are at risk?
Katherine Schreiber, co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, is a New York City-based writer pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University.
Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, is an associate professor of psychology at Jacksonville University in the College of Health Sciences.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Exercise addiction is thought to afflict an estimated 3% of regular gym-goers (Monok et al., 2012). This figure, however, seems to vary based on the population studied, the type of physical activity, and the level of competition. For example, amongst sports science, university students the risk of exercise addiction jumps to almost 7% (Szabo & Griffiths, 2007). When it comes to runners, some research suggests 25% of amateurs qualify as exercise addicted, with the prevalence doubling to 50% in marathon runners (Anderson, Basson, & Geils, 1997). And, among triathletes, the prevalence of exercise addiction has been found to top 52% (Blaydon & Lindner, 2002).
The largest prevalence study to date was conducted with a national representative sample of 2,710 Hungarian adults aged 18 to 64 years (Mónok et al., 2012). Of this total sample, 474 people reportedly exercised at least once a week. These active folks were asked to complete questionnaires, like the Exercise Dependence Scale, which assessed how addictive their relationship to working out was. Researchers analyzed the physically active participants’ reports of time spent in motion, the sport of choice, and attitudes surrounding exercise in addition to the lifestyle reports from their sedentary counterparts and concluded that an estimated 0.3% of the total population was at risk for exercise addiction.
These research-based estimates are in concordance with the argument that exercise addiction is relatively rare, especially when compared to other addictions. Small as this number may seem, however, it still translates to roughly 30 out of every 10,000 people. Given the physical and emotional consequences associated with these high-risk cases—which we’ll cover in future posts—that’s no insignificant number.
Researchers have also been interested in trying to determine whether exercise addicts also have a higher chance of getting hooked on other behaviors (such as shopping, internet use, and gambling) or developing dependencies on substances (such as nicotine, alcohol, or harder drugs).
Turns out, exercise addiction is in fact associated with other types of addictions such as compulsive buying, internet addiction, and work addiction (Lejoyeux et al. 2008; Villella et al., 2011). It also appears to be common amongst folks addicted to sex (Carnes, Murray, & Charpentier, 2005). That there’s so much cross-over between these addictions offers credence to the belief that underlying psychopathology may be to blame.
Although the prevalence of exercise addiction is relatively rare and appears to vary by activity it still afflicts a significant portion of regular exercisers. Whether hitting the gym staves off or encourages an addiction to exercise is based on an individual’s predisposition to addiction. (More on this soon!)