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The 21st century has been renowned as the century of fitness. Governments worldwide have began to focus on the promotion of health and fitness, catalysed by the use of campaigns such as “your 5 a day” and advertisements throughout the media, that suggest at least 30 minutes of exercise a day for a healthy lifestyle. But is our nation becoming a one of exercise addicts? And how much exercise is too much?

In today’s society there are rapidly growing pressures to “look good” and a current general focus on how celebrities are portrayed within the media. This constant medial criticism we engage in, has led to a series of new dieting and exercise trends, whereby members of the general public are starting to replicate the lifestyles of many celebrities, in order to gain those famous figures. Exercise is considered to be both physically and psychologically beneficial to health. However, within the growing fitness paradigm, more and more people are beginning to exercise without limits, to a series of damaging degrees. This has propelled researchers to agree that exercise could, in some cases, be harmful.

The Science- What Causes Exercise Addiction?

The Role of Genetics

Although the media is currently playing a vital role within exercise addictions, it has been proposed that there is an underlying biological correlation between our genetics and exercise addictions.

It has been found that certain individuals can become addicted to a drug after just a single exposure, while others never experience addictive characteristics.  This has been thought to be caused by differences in biological make ups of the brain, whereby there has been a series of research leading  to the widespread belief that certain individuals may  have a predisposition for  addictions. This means that in some individuals there is an existence of vulnerability, to a series of substances which makes them more susceptible to addiction. Therefore, exercise addiction may appear to be more common in those who express already addictive personalities and addictive behaviours.

The Role of Endorphins

Not only this, but other theories behind exercise addiction have focused on the significant role  played by endorphin levels in the body. There have been several studies, including those by Andrea Leuenberger (2006) and Pierce et al (1993), investigating the relationship between vigorous exercise and alterations of blood plasma endorphin levels, which have proposed a correlation between these alterations and the existence of addictive behaviours. Endorphins are endogenous opioids released from the pituitary gland that are believed to mediate analgesia, induce euphoria, and play a role in the reward system in the brain. It has been suggested that endorphins are responsible for creating the relaxed psychological state known as “runner’s high.” This “runners high” and the release of exhilarated feelings that are generated by endorphins, have been thought to trigger initial drives towards compulsive exercise patterns that  eventually results in signs of addiction including withdrawal, tolerance and craving.

In the past, definitions of addiction have been specifically restricted to drug and alcohol ingestion, however, in today’s society physical and psychological addictions are currently being used to describe relationships within food and exercise. Exercise addiction is a psychological and physiological dependence on regular exercise, characterised by withdrawal symptoms after 24 to 36 hours without exercise. The symptoms include anxiety, restlessness, guilt, irritability, tension and discomfort, as well as apathy, sluggishness, lack of appetite, sleeplessness and headaches. This addiction occurs when adaptive changes in the brain causes a series of phases, including; tolerance, sensitization, dependence, and withdrawal. These phases are proposed to be caused by changes within endorphin levels, whereby Pierce et al. (1993) performed a study measuring plasma endorphin levels before and after endurance exercise, 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise. Their results indicated significant increases in endorphin levels after the exercise, when compared to levels before. This supports the theory that opioid peptides may be released as a result of exercising vigorously for a specific amount of time.

There has also been a series of animal studies carried out, which have become effective for observing  links between endorphin levels produced during exercise and dependence. For example, studies have been carried out on mice whereby the mice were exposed to warm water swimming.  The behaviour of the mice after chronic exposure to the warm water swimming and subsequent abstinence from the activity was shown to be similar to that of morphine withdrawal, highlighting the addictive qualities that may be implemented through exercise.

The Signs Of Addiction

An exercise addict shows many signs and symptoms that can be easily identified:

Salience –occurs when exercise becomes the dominating feature within an individual’s life whereby all their thinking, cognitive decisions and behaviours evolve around exercise. For example, even if the person is not actually engaged in the behaviour they will be thinking about the next time they will be.

Tolerance –is the process whereby increasing amounts of exercise are required to achieve the former effects, the “more is better” policy.

Withdrawal symptoms – Are caused by a decrease in endorphin levels and extracellular dopamine, they are the physical effects which occur as a result when exercise is reduced or stopped, e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc. Withdrawal symptoms within an individual can directly relate to conflict between an addict and those around them and intrapsychic conflict.

Relapse – is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of the particular activity to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of the addiction to be quickly restored after many years of abstinence or control.

In 2003 Aidman and Woollard carried out a controlled experiment in order to examine the link between acute exercise deprivation and the presence and magnitude of withdrawal symptoms, they did this using exercise-deprived and control groups to. Club-level runners who had been training five times a week volunteered to abstain from one day of training with less than 24-hours notice.  They then completed a Profile of Mood States (POMS), Running Addiction Scale (RAS) and resting heart rate (RHR) measurements. From this group, selected candidates were randomly selected to miss the next scheduled training, becoming the exercise-deprived group, while remaining runners continued their training uninterrupted. The exercise-deprived group showed a series of withdrawal-like symptoms, including depressed moods  and increased tension, anger, fatigue and confusion, as well as elevated resting heart rates whereas the group with uninterrupted training showed no changes in mood or RHR. Not only this, but it was also proposed that the endorphins released as a result of running were  responsible for the reduced pain sensitivity. They found addicted exercisers (1) are more likely to exercise for intrinsic rewards, (2) view exercise as the central part of their lives, and (3) experience disturbing deprivation sensations when they are unable to exercise.

 

The more the better?

To an exercise addict, there is no exception to the rule “the more the better.” More training, more hours, more miles, and more intensity: more is absolutely always better. Exercise addiction causes a series of chronic injuries but is not just another term for overtraining syndrome, which shows short-term symptoms due to too little rest and recovery. A healthy athlete and an exercise addict may share similar levels of training volume — the difference is in the attitude.

This has propelled researchers to agree that exercise could, in some cases, be harmful whereby current research effort is beginning to focus on two critical objectives: (1) the risk factors involved in exercise turning into a harmful compulsion and (2) developing  diagnostic methods for early detection of such transformations. By determining the genetic influence on exercise addicts, we can develop methods of preventing and detecting exercise dependencies by identifying those individuals that are believed to be at high risk. Not only this but solid evidence showing the relationship between endorphins and addictive behaviour may also illustrate that addictions have neurobiological foundations and are not necessarily determined by the will-power of an individual.

With exercise addiction becoming more and more common we must be able to determine if the concept of exercise is harmful or healthy and be able to devise a treatment plan for those addicted if the addiction is harmful to their health.

 

My Experience

I became addicted to exercise around a year and a half ago at the start of my second year of university. What began as a method to lose weight and be healthier, soon changed to an addiction whereby there became a separating line between healthy committed and unhealthy ‘‘at risk’’ exercise.

I believe my addiction stems from an addictive vulnerability that lies within my genetics, which has generation of specific cognitive and physical habits. Exercise addiction symptoms have also been witnessed in the past by my mother. In some cases a child’s physical environment can have a significant influence on their habits and lifestyle decisions, this may also have become a major factor within my addiction. In high school I was an over achiever, only ever being satisfied by an A grade, I worked non-stop to be the best, which was easily accomplished while maintaining a busy social life. However, moving to university I became a little fish in a very big pond, struggling to meet deadlines and to understand simple concepts, the intelligence of others around me caused to me give up on trying to be the best. Overall I believe my vulnerability to exercise has always existed, and by moving into an environment whereby I was no longer an academic achiever, I began work towards becoming the best in another aspect of life. “Intense, high-achieving perfectionist individuals are particularly vulnerable to this addiction,” says psychologist Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D.

 

Not only this, but I believe endorphins have played a huge role in fuelling  my addiction. Missing just one day at the gym causes physical depression, I never feel better than when I reach  my exercise peak and exceed personal limits and goals set. Today exercise is an aspect that has detrimentally altered my lifestyle causing a series of physical, medical, financial, and social issues. I constantly find myself missing numerous  social events for exercise, and will still exercise 7 days a week with serious injuries and physical pain. My obsession bites back in the form of chronic injuries, impaired relationships and other problems. What began as 20 minutes of jogging a day has turned to running specifically timed 7.5 minute miles for 7 miles or more a day, causing me to become an exercise-obsessed runner. My train of thought is “the more the better” and my greatest fear is that I may one day complain that running has ruined my life. Around 6 Months ago, due to an injury, I changed my focus into building muscle and bodybuilding, this has helped me to gain more control over my compulsive running and obsession with my body image. Overall, despite looking physically better for losing over a stone and building muscle I still continue to maintain a low self esteem, in the past I believe that as this  underlying psychological cause became worse, my addiction grew and tolerance increased.

At the moment I believe I have an obsession rather than an addiction, whereby I posses control, this means that now exercise more reflects my determination and physical strive to be the best. The majority of the time I physically enjoy my exercise regime and the health benefits that are associated with it. However, I do still feel guilty for underperforming or missing a session and I believe a loss of control could easily lead to a relapse and repeat of my past behaviours. In my opinion, exercise and physical achievements represent my determination, commitment and physical strength. On one hand, I see this as a “positive addiction” whereby I am currently happy with my choice of lifestyle. Looking into the fitness industry my type of addictive behaviour is common, however, at times I wonder whether I may have been happier being a little bit “chubby” and whether suffering a series of chronic injuries may cause more serious problems.

I believe early detection is crucial for exercise addicts, whereby gaining control and balance is critical. One of my main aims now is to help motivate society to become fit and healthy, but maintain that crucial balance between exercise and having a healthy lifestyle. Having experienced an exercise addiction first hand, I hope that I am able to help those with different or more serious addictions.

 

References

 

Eugene V. Aidman, Simon Woollard. (2003). The influence of self-reported exercise addiction on acute emotional and physiological responses to brief exercise deprivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise . 4, p225–236.

ANNABEL TERRY, ATTILA SZABO and MARK GRIFFITHS. (2004). THE EXERCISE ADDICTION INVENTORY: A NEW BRIEF SCREENING TOOL .Addiction Research and Theory. 12 (5), p489–499.

Andrea Leuenberger. (2006). Endorphins, Exercise, and Addictions: A Review of Exercise Dependence . Impulse: The Premier Journal for Undergraduate Publications in the Neurosciences . p1-9.

Edgar F. Pierce , Norris W. Eastman , Hem T. Tripathi , Kirsten G. Olson & William L. Dewey (1993):Plasma ß‐endorphin immunoreactivity: Response to resistance exercise, Journal of Sports Sciences, 11:6, 499-502

American Running Association. (2013). Know the signs of unhealthy exercise addiction.Available:http://www.active.com/running/Articles/Know_the_signs_of_unhealthy_exercise_addiction. Last accessed 10/06/2013.

 

Kevin Cann. (2013). Exercise Addiction. Available: http://robbwolf.com/2013/05/29/exercise-addiction/. Last accessed 10/06/2013

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