So-called exercise addiction only affects a small subset of people, experts say.
So-called exercise addiction only affects a small subset of people, experts say.
PHOTO: Isaac Koval/E+/Getty Images

Story highlights

You can be a "committed exerciser" but not addicted

An addiction adversely affects other areas of your life

Working out when you're injured or exhausted would signal an addiction

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The rumor: Exercise can become addictive – just like drugs

You’ve probably heard of “runner’s high” and “yoga bliss” – feelings of euphoria that can come after periods of exercise. And maybe you’ve heard people talk about how they “have” to work out – as though if they didn’t exercise, they’d suffer severe physical or psychological repercussions.

But is exercise a potent enough “drug” that it can literally make a person an addict? Do some people really need to work out – and will they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they don’t?

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The verdict: Exercise can be addictive for some people (but they’re the exception)

Ask sports psychologists if exercise addiction is legitimate, and many will confirm that it is.

However, research suggests that so-called exercise addiction affects only a small subset of people – those who push too hard and exercise when they’re injured or exhausted, or to the point that it adversely affects their work and relationships.

So unless you’re about to lose your job because of your gym habit (or are running marathons each morning despite having shin splints), you’re probably not truly “addicted” to exercise.

People who exercise with fervor – but responsibly – aren’t addicted; they’re what sports scientists refer to as “committed exercisers.”

According to Andy Martin, a personal trainer at the Aria Athletic Club and Spa in Vail, Colorado, many people feel guilty after missing workouts, or notice negative changes in their body (such as tighter muscles and joints) when they don’t exercise. These people make exercise a priority, but don’t suffer from an exercise addiction.

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There are a number of reasons people get hooked on exercise in this healthy way. “Runner’s high is an actual ‘high’ in the literal sense of the word,” explains Martin.

“During and upon completion of an intense workout – whether it be an endurance race or a high-intensity weightlifting session – endorphins flood the brain and can induce an emotional response that can range from satisfaction to euphoria, depending on the intensity of the activity.”

For some, group exercise in particular can provide social support, which is a big need for most people.

Of course, becoming “hooked” on exercise requires an understanding of the value that physical activity inherently holds, says Martin.

Some people want to go to the gym because they don’t want to suffer from heart disease or stroke. Others show up regularly because they want to maintain their appearance (or have their pants fit after they splurge on dessert). Still others want to be sure they can keep up with their kids.

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Whatever your reason for working out, as long as you aren’t skipping important meetings to get in a run or doing one-armed push-ups because your other arm is in a sling from overuse, you’re more likely to be addicted to your morning coffee than to your treadmill.

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