Experts say roughly one in 10 high-performance runners – and presumably cyclists, triathletes, and people who engage in other intense training regimens – have an unhealthy, even destructive, relationship with exercise. Their unceasing quest to shave milliseconds off their sprint times, burn evermore calories per elliptical session, and find the perfect nutrition regimen becomes all-encompassing, takes precedence over pretty much everything else, and can eventually damage their health and the well-being of those around them.
"Whether it's sex, nicotine, heroin, or exercise, something takes the label of addiction when it becomes self-injurious, detrimental, or followed by destructive consequences," says Greg Chertok, a psychology consultant at Telos Sports Psychology Coaching and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. "Research reveals that, on neurological level, all abused substances or activities activate the same pleasure sensors in the brain, and human nature tells us we want to repeat what feels good."
But continually chasing that dopamine rush can get you in hot water. Once exercise evolves from a healthy habit into a full-blown addiction, many men become irritable, easy to anger, unable to sleep, and even depressed, says Chertok. And those are just the mental pitfalls. Many exercise addicts won't let their overtaxed bodies rest and recover when they should. They're unable to pull back the throttle even a little, which leads to muscle soreness, injury, and eventually diminished performance results.
Plus, as with alcoholism or other addictions, the consequences of exercise addiction are often felt first by family, friends, and coworkers, long before the athlete realizes he has a problem. "Disrupted family and work life are the main signs of an exercise addiction," Chertok says. "If a guy minimizes time spent with his partner or kids or he has zero social life outside of training – and he's either oblivious or completely fine with that – those are red flags. If he's spending less and less time at the office, that's another sign."
Chertok says anyone can fall into exercise addiction, but it's most common among men who feel an extreme need to control their lives. "They are usually highly regimented and goal-oriented people," he says. "Oftentimes they're attracted to very structured diets." In most instances, these are great qualities to have. And that's exactly why exercise addiction so frequently flies under the radar. "We look at an addictive exerciser on the surface and applaud him for being so regimented and healthy, whereas when we see someone using drugs, we stop them," says Chertok.
The good news is there's a way out of this addiction – and it doesn't have to mean abstaining entirely from exercise. Rather, it involves taking a step back. "It really helps to get some kind of mental skills consulting," he says. "It doesn't have to be a clinical psychologist. A mental health professional can help you develop a healthier relationship with your training. They'll help you figure out why you're workout out so hard in the first place, why it takes up so much of your time, and whether you're getting the proper support. Initially, many obsessive athletes think that working with me is as indication of weakness, or that they're broken. But just as you might see a strength-and-conditioning coach, a mental skills consultant can give you the tools to properly relax or energize, help rekindle your passion, and get your training back into perspective."