Commitment or Compulsion? The Signs of Exercise Addiction

The perfect drug? img via mattbeighton on flickr

Runners tend to stick to our training plans like rice on a sushi roll. We aren’t known to be flexible in our routines; we have a goal set and we strive to keep on track to reach it, whether that means enduring nasty 20 mile per hour winds to get in our 15-miler before church or skipping out on a happy hour to head to the track for speedwork. All that is fine and dandy and usually characteristic of the average dedicated runner, but to some it might seem like an unhealthy addiction.

Unfortunately, in some cases, that is true.

As a runner who has suffered from unhealthy exercise addiction, I hope to shed a little light on what it is and how to identify it, both within yourself and in other runners you know.

As Espresso recently expounded, running alone probably won’t harm you, but when taken to an extreme, anything can damage you or your body . To others, those with exercise addictions may appear to be super-healthy role models who make extra time and effort to train, while inwardly they are suffering social and psychological havoc. Running/exercise becomes more important than absolutely everything else and even when sick, injured or on a crammed business trip, you simply cannot miss a work-out, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Dedicated Training vs. Obsessive Addiction

You might be thinking, “What about pro runners like Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman?  Surely, they prioritize running and can’t miss a work-out. And don’t we all have these thoughts and behaviors to some degree, especially when we’re chasing big goals and dreams?”

The difference is in the attitude. A healthy athlete and an exercise addict might actually share a pretty similar daily agenda and level of training, but there tends to be a significant difference in approach. Professional athletes likely still value the fruits of our humanity, like friends, family and community involvement, whereas an exercise addict may self-isolate and prefer to spend time exercising.

An addict differs from most dedicated runners by becoming a slave to his/her exercise routine and may have disillusioned perspectives on life. Hours of training preempt absolutely everything else and emotional connections become a thing of the past:  all free time is consumed by training. Anything that interferes is just an irritating distraction. Your cousin’s wedding? Your little sister’s first softball game? Who needs it?

Identifying Exercise Addiction

Exercise addictions can be subtle forms of eating disorders, in which expending calories and maintaining or losing body weight in an attempt to improve at their sport becomes the biggest priority of one’s daily life.  When confronted, those in the midst of exercise addiction, similar to those suffering with anorexia or bulimia, are usually in a state of denial. They might insist that such training is necessary for top performance. They also tend to believe that even one day away from their routine may result in weight gain, which we all know is not true.

I missed moments like this(!! haha) when I was addicted to exercising. As sad as it was, I felt extreme guilt if I wasn't on an elliptical or running, so I'd skip social functions.
I missed moments like this(ha!) when I was addicted to exercising. As sad as it was, I felt extreme guilt if I wasn’t on an elliptical or running, so I’d skip hanging out with friends if it got in the way of my gym time.

Most of us see our friends who run more than we do as admirable people who value things like discipline, sacrifices and hard work. But when the answer to every problem is just to run more, more, more…there might be a red flag. A poor racing performance? Run more. An injured foot?  Run more. A healthy athlete can know when to draw the line, when the body needs rest and recovery. An addict cannot (or, more likely, just refuses to).

Compulsive exercisers may actually have similar behaviors to drug addicts. For example, the addicted exerciser finds pleasure only in exercising and it becomes a necessary obligation, not a choice. When exercising, she may feel extreme happiness/euphoria; however, with time (as with drugs) she needs more, more, and more to get that same high. Instead of the 90 minutes on the elliptical, she has to up it to 180 minutes; instead of 9 miles, she has to hit 19, and so on. If forced to miss a work-out, feelings of overwhelming anxiety and guilt are very likely.

Once running loses its element of fun, pleasure and relaxation…once it becomes a daily “chore” that cannot be missed, you might want to rethink your motives. Even the most competitive professional athletes still love their sport simply because it’s their passion, not a compulsive need. Unfortunately, exercise addicts usually don’t become lifelong runners. The addiction often results in negative consequences: burn-out, injury and perhaps even bitterness toward the sport. Almost all compulsive exercisers suffer from overtraining symptoms, such as muscle strains, soreness, stress fractures and chronic overuse injuries like tendonitis; however, they continue training despite it all.

Having recovered from a combination of eating disorders and exercise addiction, I constantly check in to make sure running is adding a dimension to my life, rather than taking other things away. During my phases of exercise addiction I simply couldn’t miss my run and I’d always be calculating calories in versus calories burned. If I had to miss a run, I felt extreme feelings of guilt and anxiety and would restrict my eating. I’ve been lucky enough to get off that track but did have to take a complete hiatus from running while in treatment to reach that point.

chocolate chip cookie
If I ate one chocolate chip cookie worth 300 calories, I had a compulsion to go run 3 miles to “burn it off.” Img via roboppy on flickr.

Have You Walked (or Crossed) the Line?

This post isn’t meant to scare you or to promote self-diagnosing, but, it’s something to consider as a runner. After all we are known to be high-achieving perfectionists, both of which are characteristic of an exercise addict, but can also simply be symptomatic of a highly motivated athlete who loves to reach her goals!  Nonetheless, Exercise addiction can be a serious health danger, and if you can relate to all or most of the below symptomatic signs, it might be best to reevaluate your running motives and talk to a health care professional. 

*Note: I am not a health care professional, just a runner who has suffered (and recovered!) from Exercise Addiction.

The following checklist was developed by Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase, MD, who wrote a fantastic article about exercise addiction:

  • I have missed important social obligations and family events in order to exercise.
  • I have given up other interests, including time with friends, in order to make more time to work out
  • Missing a workout makes me irritable and depressed. [Ginkgo’s note: I think this one is a bit too general, personally, as I think many runners experience a little bit of a bad mood when they have to miss a planned run.]
  • I only feel content when I am exercising or within the hour after exercising.
  • I like exercise better than sex, good food, or a movie — in fact there’s almost nothing I’d rather do. [YIKES!]
  • I work out even if I’m sick, injured, or exhausted. I’ll feel better when I get moving anyway.
  • In addition to my regular schedule, I’ll exercise more if I find extra time.
  • Family and friends have told me I’m too involved in exercise.
  • I have a history (or a family history) of anxiety or depression.
When I had 13 stitches in my knee and didn't take a day off from running...I knew I had a problem.
When I had 13 stitches in my knee and refused to take a day off from running (even when one of the stitches popped open)…I had a problem.

Dangers of Exercise Addiction

Compulsive exercising, when the gym literally becomes your second home, can be as dangerous as full-blown eating disorders, the use of diet pills and laxatives, and, oftentimes, they lead into other eating disordered behaviors. Kidney failure, heart attack, fainting, nausea, insomnia, and even death all become possibilities. Compulsive exercise is a very serious health concern that often requires professional intervention.

Besides the more obvious physical dangers, serious psychological and social effects come along with the territory. Depression, suicide, loss of friends and employment, even child neglect and social withdrawal have all been linked to exercise addictions. Honestly, I used to miss bachelorette parties and family reunions in favor of running/going to the gym for hours at a time.

Treatment for exercise addiction is a challenge. The person with the addiction is unable to see the problem, and people around the athlete are usually conditioned to believe that exercise (and especially running), in any amount, is a positive thing.

Have you found yourself flirting with exercise addiction? Are you worried about a teammate or friend? Please share your stories, thoughts, advice, and insights!

I'm a new momma, full-time non-profiter, and coffee lover. I write about healthy body image, half marathon training, and recovery from eating disorders. I'm currently training to maintain fitness throughout the winter and break 1:27:00 in my next half marathon.

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  1. I like to refer to the DSM manual and replace running with alcohol and see if the diagnosis fits. Your checklist is a version of this. The new DSM includes a “behavioral addiction not otherwise specified” which means runners may now be reimbursable by insurance companies for their endeavors. Just think how neat it would be to do our therapy sessions on a treadmill. Beats a couch. But great point when you say “if the answer to every problem is to run” well, that seems a problem.

  2. Wow! GREAT post, Ginkgo! I’ve had people in my life question whether I was an exercise addict and sometimes I’ve even wondered, myself. BUT after reading this I know that I’m not. I have some overlapping characteristics, feeling a little angsty on my off days or when I have to miss a run, but I do enjoy the rest of my non-running life. That’s a good check, at least for me, I think.

    What’s also great about this post is that it outlines what it means to be a healthy dedicated runner. I think a lot of times our family and friends who are not into running or other athletics don’t “get it” and often accuse us of being addicts when we’re not. This helps back us healthy dedicated runners up that what we’re doing is perfectly healthy and not an addiction. See, mom, I can run 75 miles a week without being mentally ill 🙂

  3. This is a really good topic to address. I think a lot of runners, myself included can walk the fine line of addiction so it’s good to have guidelines like this so we can all be aware of when we might start drifting over the line.

  4. I’m just now catching up on reading posts, and I enjoyed this one. Such a great way to define exercise addiction! One of the reasons why I chucked my heart rate monitor is because I was becoming obsessed with calories burned. It actually stressed me out when I didn’t burn enough.

    PS: congrats on your wedding!!!

  5. Thanks so much for this post, Gingko. So much of it resonated with me. I\’m currently struggling with serious exercise addiction and I\’m getting treatment both with a therapist and Eating Disorders Anonymous meetings. Although I\’ve struggled on-and-off with bulimia since I was 15 (I\’m 30 now), things were mostly under control in my 20\’s. More recently, I started graduate school and a combination of factors left me turning to food and exercise for control/escape. I was in denial for a good while, but I realized things were getting obsessive and sought out help. Unfortunately, I still find myself torn between thoughts of \”exercising is healthy…there\’s nothing wrong with me!\” and \”okay, I\’m being way to rigid about this and life is revolving around food/exercise too much.\” Losing my menstrual cycle was a major wake up call that my body wasn\’t functioning properly. Recovery is a tough long journey, but I\’m working on it, and having a support network has been crucial. If you have any other advice about recovery, I\’d love to hear it, and once again – thanks for blogging about this!

  6. Although no longer a runner, due to pain in my hips and knees, I found the gym (weight training) and the elliptical as a substitute. I know I need rest days to achieve my goals, I know I should be enjoying other things in my life, and I think I need to seek help. I train no matter what else is happening.