The mental and physical implications of overtraining and exercise addiction
Written by Melani De Sousa
Exercising too much, or overtraining, might seem like a foreign concept to the average person, but more and more studies are revealing the increasing prevalence of disordered eating, weight obsession and overtraining not only in adults, but in children as young as 11 years old.
From an early age we are taught that moving our bodies and exercising regularly are important habits in preventing illness, increasing overall strength, and maintaining a healthy body weight. But when does the interpretation of this advice go too far, and when do we start seeing the damaging effects of working out too much, particularly when paired with symptoms like low self-esteem, distorted body image and disengagement in other areas of life?
According to the Australian Department of Health, adults should accumulate 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise each week, with at least 2 days of muscle strengthening activity. Better Health Victoria suggests choosing exercise based on enjoyment, lifestyle factors and activities that increase your social network, while the type and style of exercise you participate in may be influenced by factors such as gender, race, and income level.
Overall, Australians as a whole do not tend to get enough daily exercise, with just over half (55.4%) of 18-64 year old’s undertaking at least 150 minutes or more of exercise weekly. On the flip side however, some experts are growing concerned that now more than ever exercise addiction is on the rise, particularly amongst those at risk of developing an eating disorder and/or substance abuse issue.
With more research required into the problem, one study estimates that between 3-7 percent of regular exercisers were at risk of exercise addiction with up to 10 percent of the athletic population. If we use the above statistics to calculate this proportion (excluding athletes) this number could be as high as 1.12 million people aged between 18-64 years old in Australia. Not to mention the further 1 million who at any time are believed to be suffering an eating disorder.
So, what does exercise addiction look like, and what are the risks?
Using questions developed by the most recognised questionnaire for identifying exercise addiction among adults (the Exercise Addiction Inventory or EAI) we’ve provided you with a list of six basic questions for you or a loved one to answer as truthfully as possible:
IDENTIFYING EXERCISE ADDICTION
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following:
- Exercise is the most important thing in my life
- My family or friends are concerned about me because I exercise so much
- I use exercise to change my mood (e.g. to feel happier or forget about problems)
- Over the last year, I have increased the amount of daily exercise that I do
- If I don’t exercise every day, I get restless, upset or sad
- I have tried to reduce the amount of exercise I do but end up exercising as much as I did before
- Strongly disagree: 1 point
- Disagree: 2 points
- Neither agree nor disagree: 3 points
- Agree: 4 points
- Strongly agree: 5 points
If you scored between 24 and 30 points, there is a high risk that you have developed an unhealthy relationship to training and exercise. In this case, exercise has taken control over your life and has a big influence on your self-worth and identity. Other means of identifying exercise addiction include looking out for symptoms such as:
- Feeling a compulsion to do more and more exercise, or feeling that you’re not doing enough
- Training through injury
- Feeling strong withdrawal symptoms if exercise is stopped
- Missing important social events because you “have to” exercise.
(“Exercise addiction is a real mental health condition, yet still poorly understood”, March 2020, www.theconversation.com)
THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL RISKS OF OVERTRAINING AND EXERCISE ADDICTION
Some of the many complications arising from exercise addiction include:
- Hard and soft tissue injuries
- Increased cortisol levels
- Reduced performance
- Obsessive behaviour like constant body checking or weighing oneself, counting calories and extremely rigid workout routines
- Limited or missed social activity to make time for extra training
- Dependence on exercise to feel good
- Anxiety (particularly when a workout is missed)
- Withdrawing from regular activities and prioritising exercise
- Mood swings and irritability
- Loss of menstruation (females)
- Poor bone health
- Significant weight loss
- Excessive fatigue
- Poor concentration and cognitive functioning
For the most part, engaging in regular amounts of exercise results in an array of positive benefits, but for some of us overtraining and exercise addiction can quickly take over our lives and cause a significant impact on both our mental and physical health. It’s important to frequently check in with yourself and seek support from trusted professionals; in this case a GP, Psychologist, Exercise Physiologist or even a good Personal Trainer to identify whether your current exercise program is still providing you with benefits, and not bordering excessive. Remember to also fact check your sources, and never trust the sole guidance of social media influencers who are not qualified to provide health advice.
-  Australia’s health series no. 16. AUS 221, Australia’s Health 2018, Australian Institute of Health & Welfare
-  Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Adults (18-64 years), Department of Health, 2019
-  Better Health Channel, State Government of Victoria (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/physical-activity-choosing-the-one-for-you)
-  State of American Well-Being, Gallup and Sharecare, 2017
-  National Health Survey: First Results, 2017-18
-  Marques, A., Peralta, M., Sarmento, H. et al. Prevalence of Risk for Exercise Dependence: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 49, 319–330 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-1011-4
-  Eating Disorders Victoria, 2020