Pushing It Too Far? When Healthy Exercise Habits Become Harmful

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Many people have bad habits--probably even you. Habits are not always bad things. When you become psychologically dependent on your habit, however, your habit becomes an addiction.

When you hear about addiction, the first things that enter your mind are most likely drugs or alcohol. Yet, these are not the only addictions out there. One of the most frequently overlooked addictions revolves around a seemingly healthy activity: exercise.

What Is a Behavioral Addiction?

Like alcohol and drugs, behaviors can also become addictive. If you behave in and enjoy an activity to a point where you have trouble resisting the urge to perform that behavior again, even though that behavior has started to negatively affect other aspects of your life, you just might have a behavioral addiction.

So, what activities constitute a behavioral addiction? Officially speaking, certain habits, when acted upon impulsively, are classified as "impulse control behaviors." These activities include compulsive stealing (kleptomania) and compulsive gambling.

On the other hand, many behaviors can be addictive in nature. These behaviors, like impulse control behaviors, substance dependencies, and substance addictions, can negatively interfere with your daily life.

Examples of Behavioral Addictions

Many developed habits have pure or even beneficial origins. For example, a desire to do well in your career is, usually, a good thing. When that need to work overtakes your life in a negative way, however, that "good habit" becomes an addiction.

Behavioral addictions comprise of a mixed bag of activities, and approximately two to three percent of the population suffers from one. Commonly-reported behavioral addictions include pornography, self-mutilation (like cutting), food binging, and internet use.

Working Out: The Silent Behavioral Addiction

Doctors and researchers have long praised the mental and physical benefits of exercise, both long-term and short-term. When that exercise is more strenuous, the health effects are even more positively marked.

Sounds great, right? If you are a diligent, vigorous athlete, you should be well on your way to a longer, happier life.

Not necessarily! In most cases, a high-intensity workout regimen is extremely beneficial and can improve your physical health and your mental and emotional state. But, like other virtuous habits, exercising too much can become a behavioral addiction.

Toeing the Line

If you are an avid and dedicated athlete, knowing when your exercise regimen is healthy and when it is an addiction can be difficult. For example, if you are a long-distance runner trying to accomplish a personal record in an upcoming marathon, you are more likely to put in extra time and effort into your training than usual. This is usually a normal--and exciting--state of mind. On the other hand, if you trained for your marathon but continue an excessive training routine after the race, to a point where you value your activity above your work, social life, and loved ones, you are possibly addicted.

Another way to determine whether or not your healthy habit has grown into an addiction is by looking at your reaction when you are unable to work out. Life happens, and it frequently interrupts, delays, or cancels your work out plans. If you respond with irritability, anxiety, or depression, your need to exercise is likely unbalanced.

Finally, if those around you have expressed concern over your workout habits, you should look closely at the possibility that your habit is an addiction. Talk to a psychiatrist about your concerns; psychiatrists can help you determine if you have an unhealthy addiction to exercise, and if so, can help you reign in that addiction.