Exercising Addiction – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Sports addiction

Sports addiction or fitness addiction is a behavioral addiction that describes the addictive compulsion to do sports or fitness So far, sports addiction is not officially considered a disease in its own right, although it can certainly be assumed to be a mental disorder.

What is exercise addiction?

In times of passive locomotion, sport is becoming increasingly important in health care. With slogans such as “Fit for Fun” and numerous mass events, popular sport and awareness of the positive effects of physical training are specifically promoted.

For the majority of recreational athletes, sport is actually health-promoting, but for an estimated 1% of active people, training triggers an undesirable effect: sports addiction .


Sports addiction is defined as a typical behavioral addiction based on non-externally supplied addictive substances. The original assumption that exercise addiction is triggered by endorphins seems only partially correct. Recent studies show that the body’s own messenger substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is also involved in the development of addiction.

Apart from endorphins and dopamine, psychological factors play a major role in sports addiction. These include body image disorders and eating disorders . For a long time, “anorexia athletica” was considered a phenomenon in elite and competitive sport and is now increasingly found in popular sport. The societal pressure that a body has to be very slim and athletic seems to influence not only eating habits but also physical activity.

An additional amplifying factor could be the “flight from reality”. Due to the constant activity to the point of complete exhaustion , the addict experiences himself exclusively in the here and now, which enables him to suppress problems and difficulties.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

The core feature of exercise addiction is excessive exercise. The sport doesn’t matter. Those affected can enjoy exercise despite their sports addiction. However, it is also possible that they feel that doing sports is just a duty. In order to create more time for the gym or for jogging, swimming, cycling and other activities, sufferers limit other hobbies. They often withdraw from friends and family.

As with classic addictions, an increase in sports addiction is also typical: sports addicts often start with a normal amount of exercise, which soon becomes insufficient. With a pronounced sports addiction, most of those affected do sports every day. When they are unable to do so, they feel guilty, tense, or suffer from nervousness , mood swings , anxiety , or outbursts of anger.

The inner compulsion to train despite an injury can also be a sign of an exercise addiction. Many exercise addicts endure pain or take medication to block out the body’s warning signals. Some train to the point of exhaustion and vomit or suffer a circulatory collapse .

Therefore, in many cases, sports addiction leads to further physical complaints. In addition to injuries and signs of fatigue, weight changes can also occur. In contrast to an eating disorder or dysmorphophobia, however, weight, figure and appearance are not the focus of sports addiction.

Diagnosis & History

Sports addiction can hardly be diagnosed by those affected themselves, since they feel subjectively well and, like every addict, does everything they can to maintain the status. He will not admit to compulsion to himself or to others. It is usually the people around him who notice the negative changes.

Sports addiction is extremely diverse. First, the training workload is increased more and more. Even with illness or injury, the addict is unable to rest. If he tries it anyway, he suffers from withdrawal symptoms. These include headaches and stomachaches , tremors , states of anxiety and depression , as well as aggression and irritability .

As the disease progresses, those affected break off their social ties and contacts because they need all their energy for training and are then too exhausted for conversations or activities. The consequences of sports addiction for the organism are serious. The constant physical overstrain weakens the immune system and makes those affected more susceptible to infections. However, since he will not miss his training under any circumstances, he sets in motion a spiral of health deterioration.

Furthermore, the extreme stress on bones, muscles and ligaments carries a high risk of injury. As with anorexia, additional malnutrition can lead to anemia and severe hormonal imbalances. Concentration disorders can also occur, which have a negative impact on professional life.


Exercising addiction can have serious consequences for the organism if the body’s signals are not taken into account. It is particularly dangerous to ignore cardiovascular problems such as dizziness, weakness, drowsiness and heart pain or to train at full intensity despite a feverish illness: In the worst case, irreparable damage to the heart muscle or fatal cardiac arrest can be the result.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs increases the risk of a life-threatening complication. Overstrained tendons, muscles, ligaments and joints wear out prematurely, and acute injuries very often become chronic without sufficient recovery time. Constantly exceeding the performance limit can also cause headaches, insomnia and muscle pain.

If sports addicts also suffer from an eating disorder, they are usually malnourished or undernourished: A weakened immune system with increased susceptibility to infections and reduced physical and mental performance can be the result. In women, excessive exercise combined with being underweight often leads to hormonal imbalances, which can result in the absence of menstruation (amenorrhea) and a decrease in bone density (osteoporosis).

Due to the porous bone substance, the risk of suffering a fracture in harmless falls increases. If social contacts, work and the relationship with the partner are neglected in favor of excessive exercise, there is a long-term threat of complete isolation if countermeasures are not taken in good time.

When should you go to the doctor?

In most cases, the patient with a sports addiction is dependent on medical advice and examination to prevent further symptoms and complications. In extreme cases, the addiction to sports can even lead to death if the excessive exertion overstrains the body so much that a heart attack or a stroke occurs. For this reason, a doctor should be contacted at the first sign of sports addiction. Outsiders in particular must recognize the symptoms and persuade those affected to seek treatment.

A doctor should be consulted for sports addiction if the person concerned frequently engages in sporting activities. Those affected become nervous if they are unable to exercise. You suffer from anxiety or severe mood swings. General depressive behavior can also indicate sports addiction and must be examined by a doctor. A doctor should also be contacted if the person concerned suffers from an eating disorder.

Sports addiction is usually treated by a general practitioner or a sports physician. Further treatment usually requires the advice of a psychologist .

Treatment & Therapy

Sports addiction is usually treated as part of psychotherapy . The therapy can be carried out on an outpatient basis, but is carried out on an inpatient basis if eating disorders occur at the same time.

Self-therapy is rarely successful, since the person concerned usually lacks insight. For him, his training workload is nothing more than a hobby, even if it already completely determines his everyday life and relationships break up because of it. With the support of a therapist, however, the chances of success are very good.

Each therapy is based on the needs of the patient and neither the exact duration of the therapy nor the number and frequency of the necessary sessions can be determined from the outset.

Cognitive therapy approaches have proven to be quite successful. Talk therapy in particular should be used by therapists to treat sports addiction. If the person affected does not know which doctor to turn to, the first step to a psychological counseling center or a practicing sports psychologist is always the right choice.


Education is the best way to prevent sports addiction. The knowledge that one can also become addicted to sports sharpens one’s vigilance. Training that is carried out three times a week and lasts no longer than one and a half to two hours is considered healthy sporting behaviour.

Above all, experts call for information work in schools, since young people between the ages of 11 and 17 are a group at high risk of addiction. Self-observation, but also an attentive environment can do a lot at the first signs of addictive behavior. The important thing here is honesty, towards yourself and towards others.


The treatment of a sports addiction requires consistent follow-up care after the therapy so that the patient does not fall back into old behavioral patterns. Follow-up care can be arranged with the psychologist, but also with people you trust or your family doctor. The reason for the sports addiction is not only important for the treatment, but also in the context of aftercare, as it also includes discovering and trying out alternatives for doing sports.

Especially people who want to generate a sense of achievement through sport can achieve this in other ways. In this context, social commitment such as coaching can be just as important as a professional career or an artistic hobby. On the other hand, if you give health as the reason for your sports addiction, you can do this with hiking or water sports, a sauna or a healthy diet.

Exercising addiction is no reason to stop exercising. It is therefore not the goal in aftercare to consistently avoid sport, but to practice it in healthy doses. It can be helpful here to do sports with friends, as this avoids overdoing sports activities and offers the experience of sports in moderation. At the same time, it can be experienced that the social component of sport and not just success can make you happy. Setting deadlines for sports times can also accompany aftercare in a goal-oriented manner.

You can do that yourself

A sports addiction is difficult to overcome without therapeutic help. It is a disorder in which sufferers suffer from a misperception. Most of the time, they don’t even notice the negative consequences. A neglect of other areas of life is approved for the sake of the good goal. Experience has shown that only clear physical problems lead to a willingness to change the rhythm of life. In many patients, however, the musculoskeletal system is then permanently damaged.

There is only a chance of success outside of medical treatment if people are willing to be self-critical. The environment should help with the treatment. Parents, siblings and friends should definitely confide in the sick and ask for support. The reduction of training and the monitoring of agreed times by confidants proves to be promising. A written daily schedule can help.

A diagnosis of sports addiction is not recognized as an illness by many health insurance companies. Nevertheless, you can expect help from a doctor. Because behind the sporting madness there are often other causes. For example, women want to get to their dream body through exaggerated exercise units. Basically, the longer you have suffered from a sports addiction, the more likely you should refrain from self-therapy and consult a doctor.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.