Too much riding never hurt anyone, right? Well, while we hate to admit that there might be a limit to how much a person should spend on the bike, it turns out, there’s a very blurry line between consistency or discipline versus an unhealthy dependence or addiction to exercise.
Exercise addiction is a term often tossed around in casual conversation, especially by endurance athletes who may recognize that their obsession with the sport teeters on the edge of being problematic. Can it become a potentially dangerous problem rather than an often all-encompassing passion? The answer is maybe.
That’s why it’s important to recognize exercise addiction, how it might harm your health (as well as your performance), and when to seek help.
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What is exercise addiction?
You may also hear it referred to as obligatory exercise, exercise dependence, exercise abuse, or compulsive exercise, but it all amounts to the same thing. Exercise addiction is when somebody harms themself emotionally or physically due to over-exercising and there’s a psychological issue behind it.
The problem is that there’s no hour-per-week definition when it comes to an addiction to exercise—instead, it depends on the individual. As exercise addiction researcher Attila Szabó, Ph.D, explains to Bicycling, there are plenty of pro riders who can spend more than 30 hours per week on the bike with no problem whatsoever. In fact, that’s how you make it in sport.
By contrast, someone who spends only a few hours per week training could actually have a greater problem with exercise addiction, if the exercise is being used as a form of control, at the cost of other important things in life.
“Elite athletes can train three, four times a day, but they manage life normally and there’s no harm to that because they have a schedule,” Szabó explains. “They know where the limit is. It’s not the amount of exercise—it’s whether you can control your exercise or not.”
He also adds that even recreational athletes can be passionate about their cycling and to a casual observer (or grumpy spouse) may seem addicted. However, “just because you are overly-involved in your exercise doesn’t mean you’re addicted. You can be imbalanced with your exercise, and that can be passion-based.”
Depending on who you ask, research has shown up to three percent of Americans suffer from some form of exercise addiction.
One example of someone with exercise addiction is 54-year-old Mark Bentley, who tragically died from a heart attack just a few weeks ago, days after confessing to an addiction to cycling and explaining that he was continuing to ride despite nagging chest pain. That’s a clear sign of an addiction, says Szabó—training despite knowing that it’s actually setting you back, not improving your fitness.
Here’s the real rub when it comes to exercise addiction: Even if you read those paragraphs shaking your head and tut-tutting, likely, deep down, you probably don’t think being addicted to exercise is that bad.
“One of the things that’s tricky with disordered eating and exercise addiction versus something like substance use is that disordered eating and exercise addiction are considered egosyntonic,” Carolyn Burkholder, RD, a cyclist and registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating tells Bicycling. “That means when we have them, we tend to perceive them as being good. We tend to identify strongly with them and we tend to be proud of them, versus something like substance use, which is egodystonic because we know it’s causing pain but we still can’t stop. The egosyntonic feeling can make moving through exercise addiction harder, because even if we logically know it’s not good for us, our subconscious still thinks it’s a positive.”
Szabó agrees. “[Exercise is] a healthy habit and because of that, it’s easy to hide [the addiction]. It’s like shopping or smartphone use in some ways. Shopping and smartphones can be useful for utilitarian purposes, or for addiction. The same is true of exercise,” he explains.
Why Some People Might Become Addicted to Exercise
To deal with stress or trauma or to master a sport
There are two primary ways to become addicted to exercise: One is that you are running away from stress or trauma, and the other is a desire for mastery, where you refuse to recognize the physical and psychological limits of your body.
So, determining whether you (or someone you know) is addicted to exercise comes down to whether you can pull back from your workouts when you really need to do so. Can you take rest days until you’re fully recovered after a hard workout or take the necessary time off to recover from an injury? Can you avoid exercise when you have the urge to exercise? If you can’t, you likely have a problem, Szabó explains.
“Exercise addiction due to trauma or stress cues is when exercise becomes obligatory at any sign of that stressor, and whenever your craving comes, you must satisfy that immediately,” Szabó says. “You can’t wait. In the case of running, you literally run away from your problems. This is what we see in most cases of exercise addiction.”
The smaller percentage of exercise addictions stem from what Szabó refers to as the mastery path. In cycling, mastery has become easier to fixate on, thanks to smart trainers and power meters showing us exactly—to the watt!—what we’re capable of doing at any given moment. “These athletes are pushing to achieve more and more,” he says. “They cannot stop striving, despite their bodies being unable to do more. The body says stop, but the mind won’t accept it. The mind is quite powerful weapon, and can push the body to the breaking point.”
To deal with emotions
“Athletes with exercise addiction aren’t necessarily exercising more than athletes without exercise addiction,” says Megan Kuikman, RD, a sports dietitian who has studied topics like relative energy deficiency in sport (or RED-S), a condition that occurs when an athlete doesn’t get enough energy via food to support their activity level.
“It’s more about their relationship with exercise and how much it’s controlling their life. We’ve actually noticed that recreational athletes have more of a problem even though they’re exercising less than athletes who are doing it for their job,” Kuikman adds. “Part of this could be a misunderstanding of training principles or not working with a coach, and that’s not an addiction. But often, we see that recreational athletes are trying to control their emotions by exercising, rather than training according to a plan or based on improving in their sport.”
So rather than any hour-based metric for measuring addiction, Kuikman suggests that if your life feels completely controlled by exercise and how much you’re exercising, that’s problematic whether you’re training five hours or 30 hours per week. “If all your time is spent figuring out when you’re going to get your next exercise session in, that can be harmful for mental health even if your physical health isn’t being compromised,” she says. “There’s this picture of what somebody with an exercise addiction looks like and I think that’s harmful because people who could be struggling with it can feel like they don’t deserve help because they don’t fit that stereotype.”
To manage weight or control body image
Many people consider exercise addiction to be a secondary addiction or an addiction that’s combined with disordered eating or an eating disorder, and that can muddy the waters when it comes to diagnosing it. Because the two are so often equated—someone is obsessively exercising specifically in order to manage and control weight—we often miss cases like Bentley’s where cycling itself is the addiction, rather than the number on the scale.
“In an eating disorder, exercise is used as an additional means toward the goal of losing weight,” says Szabó. “In that case, it’s considered a secondary exercise addiction, because the primary goal is weight management.”
When weight control is at the heart of why a person is exercising, exercise isn’t the addiction, it’s part of a larger disorder—and needs to be treated as such. For an addiction to meet diagnostic criteria, it has to not be driven by other behavior. That means exercise addiction is often misnomered because it’s a byproduct of an unhealthy relationship with weight rather than a driving force in an athlete’s life.
Here’s where it gets complicated: Sometimes, exercise addiction can appear to be disordered eating, especially when RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) is diagnosed. Kuikman focuses her research primarily on the intersection of RED-S and exercise addiction. Exercise addiction simply a high enough caloric deficit around training time to put an athlete into RED-S, even if an athlete isn’t trying to drop weight. “Energy availability is made up of both energy intake and exercise energy expenditure,” she says. “And there’s a gap in the research: We’re always talking about disordered eating, and not necessarily the role an unhealthy relationship with exercise can play.”
How to Recognize Exercise Addiction Symptoms
Pay attention to your motivations
Are you constantly skipping family events? Are you not doing group rides with friends because they’re not long or hard enough (or adding extra miles before or after said rides)? Are you lying to your coach about your mileage?
As mentioned earlier, it’s not about the hours spent on the bike; it’s about why you’re riding and what you’re skipping in order to train. “Only the person going through it can truly understand the driving forces behind their approach,” says run coach David Roche, who primarily works with ultrarunners. “As a coach, you can notice negative manifestations of consistency, where it’s maintained in a compulsive fashion, despite health concerns or life concerns.”
“If you’re feeling anxious, or you’re feeling stressed, that’s usually when these compulsive behaviors come up. It’s for the ultimate goal of aspect control and avoidance of a negative aspect,” says Burkholder.
Pay attention to your power
Often, our bodies act as limiters when we get too close to addictive tendencies with exercise. For example, runners find themselves sidelined at some point, nursing an injury that makes running impossible. But cycling? Cycling tends to be what’s prescribed in order to come back from a running injury—it’s a low-impact sport that allows riders to progressively dial back their effort and output while still turning the pedals. A run slows down to a walk once the runner can no longer maintain a pace, marking an obvious difference. But a cyclist can slow down to almost zero watts and still be riding their bike.
“Training 20 hours a week can start to seem like the norm, or the low end of the spectrum, for some cyclists,” Burkholder notes. That makes keeping the addiction going arguably easier for cyclists compared to other athletes. The preponderance of indoor trainers has also made it even easier to sneak in one more workout, even at inopportune times, and has made training year-round simple. While that’s a great gain for most cyclists, it can hurt those who need that bad weather to force periods of rest.
So while hours or mileage or even injury might not force you to pause and evaluate your habits, one physical symptom of an exercise addiction is when your power numbers and performance start to drop, despite all of your hard work. This is usually a sign that your body needs a break, and if you’re struggling to take that break despite the flagging performance, that’s a warning sign of exercise addiction.
Take note on other physical signs
“It can become such a slippery slope, especially with endurance athletes, where addiction can just be easily masked as training. But many athletes know deep down that it’s overtaking their life. That inability to take rest days, just jumping from one training block to another training block—these are all signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise,” says Kuikman.
“You may also see that you’re not recovering as well. If you’re not sleeping well, or feeling more irritated, that can be a warning,” says Kuikman. “Other more chronic signs can include feeling cold all the time, having gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating or constipation, having missing or irregular periods—things like that.”
These are all similar symptoms to overtraining syndrome, which can not only harm your performance, but your health. The addiction piece comes if you realize that you are overtraining, but you cannot make changes to address it. If that sounds like you, it’s a good idea to seek help.
When to Seek Professional Help
Because exercise is healthy (and arguably necessary) in small doses, and to give it up would often cut people off from their social group, it’s a tricky one even for pros to handle. Also, unlike an addiction to a harmful substance, an addiction to exercise starts out healthy.
If you’re unsure whether you have a healthy love of cycling or an unhealthy addiction, you can check out the Exercise Dependence Scale here, which includes a scale for questions like:
- I exercise to avoid feeling irritable
- I exercise despite recurring physical problems
- I continually increase my exercise intensity to achieve the desired effects/benefits
- I am unable to reduce how long I exercise
- I would rather exercise than spend time with family/friends
You may not be able to do the complex computation to determine where exactly you fall on the scale, but if you’re answering “always” to a lot of the questions, it’s time to seek help.
All of our experts recommended seeking professional help from a licensed therapist if you’re wondering if you have a problem with exercise addiction. Burkholder suggests looking for a dialectical behavior therapist or cognitive behavior therapist to start.
“You need to be able to identify what function the exercise addiction is serving, and then ask, ‘How can I meet that need in a healthier way?’ The goal in any therapy is changing a maladaptive behavior by meeting your need with a healthy behavior,” Burkholder says. “We have to be able to diversify the things that we use for regulating emotions. Talking to a friend, meditating, journaling—finding other ways to deal with stressful emotions instead of hopping on the bike.”
And yes, you may need some time off the bike. “In the short term, depending on the situation—like an injury or where overtraining is part of the issue—you may need to take some time away from exercise,” says Burkholder. “But if someone is behaviorally struggling, but doesn’t have any physiologic manifestations, we don’t have to cut off exercise entirely. We have to not solely rely on it.” She recommends working on developing an identity outside of cycling, whether that means joining a book club, taking up knitting, or just spending time with non-cyclist friends.
If you struggle to drop your hours on the trainer, you may even want to consider hanging up the bike and trying a new sport, which can help shift your relationship to exercise in general. Kuikman suggests trying a sport that isn’t endurance-based. Bowling, golf, tennis, yoga, and even strength training can be great options. “Trying a team sport can be a great way to shift your relationship with exercise,” she adds.
When you do come back to cycling, Burkholder is a fan of working with a coach to create a more structured training plan, as this may help you avoid overtraining and training in order to deal with emotions. Instead, you’ll be training with a cycling-specific goal in mind. A coach isn’t prescribing a workout to help you cope with a fight with a spouse, the workout is simply “because it’s Tuesday.” It takes the emotional onus off the workout and lets you focus on the pedaling.
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