top of page

Are you addicted to exercise?

Are you addicted to exercise?

There are lots of things that human beings can get addicted to, some of which are more dangerous and destructive than others. From nicotine to alcohol, cocaine to chocolate, in the modern free-market economy and information age we are surrounded by temptations that can take over our time, money and health.

A lot of people, perhaps instinctively or through social experience, recognise these temptations and their weaknesses and either learn from or manage their potential addictions; they moderate their drinking, steer clear of the chocolate aisle in the supermarket or actively disassociate from social circles where Class A drugs may circulate.

They recognise the risks within themselves and protect themselves from potential danger.

In my experience, most people navigate the middle road in life where addictions and behaviour is concerned and thus stay out of trouble. But what happens when a potential addiction comes wrapped in what seems to be a healthy lifestyle? Or, to put it another way, what happens when the exercise gets to be addictive?

Most people who work out regularly and who see the effects and results of such exercise will know what I am alluding to here.

When you are in the position of getting a buzz and/or compliments from putting in the time at the gym (or pounding the pavement) it can be a powerful driver to do more and to immerse yourself in the fitness lifestyle. For certain people, however, this concentration on and absorption in exercise can go further and encompass an addiction to the biochemical processes at work when we workout. In these circumstances, exercise itself can become as stimulating, as dominating and as inescapable as any narcotic.

It can also be just as dangerous.

Runner Valerie Stephan has vividly documented the effects of exercise addiction on herself and how over a decade it came to dominate her life. "I started to realise that exercise controlled me, rather than me controlling exercise. That control quickly became an obsession," she says, speaking to the BBC about her problem. "It's had a big impact on my work, my family - every aspect of my life. Over time, exercise became unhealthy."

As her addiction grew, Stephan became increasingly isolated from those closest to her. "It's damaged my relationships," she says. "Some people just didn't understand or see why I had to exercise. They saw me as a bit crazy."

Typically, those most vulnerable to such a compulsive addiction are amateur athletes, such as Valerie, seeking relief from other distressing aspects of their lives, according to consultant psychologist Dr Chetna Kang. "Often people come to a clinic with a relationship breakdown, anxiety, depression," Kang says. "But as you start to unpick that, you realise