Two-thirds of gym memberships go untouched, either discarded in the “random shit” drawer or accidentally abandoned in a random parking lot — 15% of us lead completely sedentary lives.
Then … there’s the other extreme. The athletes and gym-goers with the “no days off,” eat-sleep-breathe exercise mindset.
The ones inviting the front desk staff to their parties and spending one-tenth of their day pounding the treadmill or hogging the bench.
Exercise addiction is not only real; it can also be incredibly dangerous.
These 14 statistics about exercise addiction will prove that there really is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.”
Who Is At Greater Risk Of Exercise Addiction?
- About 0.3–0.5% of the population struggles with exercise addiction.
- Those who visit the gym or participate in athletic competitions are more likely to develop an addiction to exercise.
What Counts As an “Addiction” to Exercise?
Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something or do something,” often compulsive, chronic, harmful, and causing withdrawal upon quitting.
But where do we draw the line between passion for exercise and all-out addiction?
Is it exercising every free moment you have? Adding PRs to your Instagram bio (please, don’t do this)? Canceling plans with friends to visit the gym with a secret workout partner?
Is an elite marathoner logging 50 miles per week an exercise addict? What about a professional bodybuilder spending two hours per day in the gym in the lead-up to a competition?
The line between “committed athlete” and “exercise addiction” is razor-thin. However, these are the five key indicators of exercise addiction, according to researchers:
- A potentially harmful increase in frequency, intensity, and length of training
- The unfulfilled craving for the euphoric endorphin release
- Disrupted day-to-day life, mood, or relationships when not training
- Typical withdrawal symptoms after a period of deprivation
- Continuing to exercise despite injuries and pain.
Exercise addiction is training despite the consequences (i.e., injury or ruined relationships) to chase the “high” or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Yes, Exercise Addiction Can Be Harmful.
We shame and stigmatize heroin users, alcoholics, and gambling addicts, while — at the same time — putting those addicted to stereotypically “healthy” habits like exercise on a pedestal.
Exercise can lower your risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes while increasing life expectancy by some 0.4–6.9 years in safe and recommended amounts.
However, once that healthy habit crosses into addiction territory, it can impact nearly every aspect of your life.
Exercise Addiction Is Higher Among Gym Users
- Of all gym-goers polled, 30.7% are addicted to exercise.
- Nearly one in ten (8%) fitness club members show signs of exercise addiction.
- Exercise addiction impacts 4% of school athletes and 8.7% of gym-goers.
Possible Causes of Exercise Addiction
Nobody joins a gym, buys a treadmill, registers for an intramural, or begins a fitness program planning to become addicted to exercise.
(Just like the 88% of cigarette smokers wishing they never started didn’t pick up their first Marlboro and say, “Hey, I think I’m going to pick up this habit.” Or alcoholics. Or drug addicts.)
Like most obsessive habits, exercise addiction is often rooted in mental health and the brain rather than the desire to improve strength or stamina:
Moderate-intensity exercise triggers a release of endorphins in the brain within 20–30 minutes, creating a “feel-good” sensation similar to morphine.
The rush of happiness and pain relief can be addictive, just like chemical substances.
The “Never Enough” Mentality
According to at least one Harvard professor, success and progress are among the most inspiring motivators in life.
Setting new personal best 5K times, out-lifting friends, and achieving weight loss goals encourages casual gym-goers to push their bodies and training one step further.
Unfortunately, the desire to be better, faster, stronger can evolve into an unhealthy habit where athletes develop extreme training regimens.
Other Causes of Exercise Addiction
Beyond the short-term endorphin “high” and the passion-turned-addiction, exercise addiction can also evolve out of:
- An obsessive desire to lose weight, gain weight, or build muscle (often attributed to body dysmorphia or eating disorders)
- Trouble coping with stress, anxiety, or depression
- A desire for a temporary “escape”
- Initial boredom or loneliness
- Poor body image (see these statistics linking exercise and self-esteem)
- A perfectionist mentality
Other so-called “exercise addicts” bounce from one addiction to the next, constantly chasing the euphoria that comes with each.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Regular gym-goers, amateur athletes, and elite-level competitors addicted to exercise may spend 3–4 hours per day — or 21–28 hours per week — training.
(For reference, a MyProtein survey of 1,170 Americans discovered the average respondent exercised just 7.6 hours per week.)
But running, lifting, or competing more often and at a higher level of intensity doesn’t always translate into greater athletic performance or physique gains.
It’s called the “principle of diminishing returns.”
The bones, joints, and muscles can only handle so much volume at one time before the benefits begin leveling off (i.e., gains peak at around ten sets of chest exercises).
High-volume, high-frequency training poses quite a few problems:
- An increased risk of injury or overtraining, as the muscles typically require 48–72 hours of rest to recover completely
- Wasted time, effort, and energy
- Little — if any — athletic improvement to show for
Doubling your training volume or frequency doesn’t necessarily double your PRs, halve your splits, or advance you toward your fitness goals at twice the speed.
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Exercise Addiction Varies By Sport
- Exercise addiction doesn’t necessarily discriminate by sport, with 7.6% of elite athletes across 15 disciplines falling into the “at-risk” category.
- Seven percent of sport science majors are at risk for exercise addiction.
- Marathon runners are twice as likely to be addicted to training than amateur runners (50% vs. 25%, respectively).
- Exercise addiction rates in triathletes topped 52%.
By Sport & Competition Level
The jury is still out on whether sport type plays a role in the risk of exercise addiction. On the one hand, a 2021 study noticed numerically higher rates of exercise addiction in:
- Weight sports (13%)
- Ball games (8.9%)
- Endurance sports (5.5%)
- Aesthetic sports (3.0%)
Meanwhile, researchers in 2019 discovered almost the exact opposite when evaluating the risk for developing exercise addiction:
- Endurance (14.2%)
- Ball games (10.4%)
- Fitness center attendees (8.2%)
- Power sports (6.4%)
There’s actually a more solid connection between exercise addiction rates and the level of competition — leisure athletes, local/regional athletes, and national/international athletes.
Research published in 2016 linked an “obsessive passion” for exercise to an eventual addiction to training. The more advanced an athlete’s level of play, the more likely they are to be addicted.
(The likely reason for this is a fierce dedication to the sport.)
Exercise Addiction Is Linked to Other Addictive Disorders
- Those with an addiction to exercise are also more likely to have at least one mental disorder, such as an eating disorder, other addiction, or anxiety.
- One in four exercise addicts struggles with other vices like shopping or sex, while 15% are also addicted to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes.
Do “Addictive” Personalities Really Exist?
Most in the scientific community would say “no.” Maia Szalavitz writes that there isn’t a single shared trait between all addicts, but there may be early warning signs for substance abuse:
- Higher IQs and talents (for drug addiction)
- Impulsivity and boldness
- Depression, anxiety, or delinquency
- A desire to self-medicate
- Poor self-regulation and self-control
Yet, in reality, anyone can develop an addiction — to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or even something as “harmless” as exercise.
If that’s the case, then, why do some people develop several addictions, either at the same time or at different points in their lives?
The most likely answers are stress relief (paired with poor coping skills), genetics, and mental health issues. Although, it’s possible a passion for exercise simply spirals out of control.
A Strong Link Exists Between Exercise Addiction and Eating Disorders
- Those with diagnosed eating disorders are 3.7x more likely to be exercise addicts.
- Exercise addiction is prevalent in 39–48% of those with eating disorders.
- More than one in five youths (21%) struggling with an eating disorder also has an addiction to exercise.
- Gym-goers with eating disorders are also much more likely to have exercise addiction (60.2%) than those who do not.
Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Exercise Addiction
Unfortunately, many cases of exercise addiction develop out of severe physical insecurity and negative body image, often occurring alongside eating disorders.
This raises the question of which issue arose first.
Exercise addiction and eating disorders often go hand-in-hand, especially amongst athletes.
Male wrestlers may starve themselves, run ten miles a day, and even spit in cups before weigh-ins to qualify for their chosen weight class at their next match.
Meanwhile, 11.7% of gymnasts meet the criteria for exercise addiction, often training 20–40 hours per week to remain at the top of their game and maintain their slim physiques.
In “Regular” Folks
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly one in ten Americans will struggle with an eating disorder.
Two of the more common disorders are anorexia — depriving yourself of food to lose weight — and bulimia — engaging in binge-purge cycles.
However, with a desire to lose weight and clouded judgment from a negative body image, some with eating disorders develop unhealthy exercise habits to burn even more calories.
No matter which comes first, the pairing is extremely dangerous.
Exercise Addiction and Self-Esteem
- Nearly 13% of athletes with severe anxiety are at higher risk for exercise addiction.
- Those wrestling with exercise addiction may notice a sense of guilt when they’re inactive, ignore pain, and be dissatisfied with their physique.
Exercise Addiction & the Psyche
Overcoming any addiction is much easier said than done.
But even more so when the addiction doubles as a coping mechanism and self-esteem-booster that virtually every health organization recommends becomes a part of your daily life.
Do you have to quit cold turkey, cancel your gym membership, and sell the treadmill on Facebook Marketplace? Not exactly; recovery could include:
- Getting rid of the routine aspect of training (i.e., not setting a schedule or making a rule for yourself that you need to train X times per week)
- Exercising for fun and with others who can distract you
- Turning your time and attention to new hobbies
- Slowly scaling back
- Allowing your muscles, bones, and joints time to fully recovery
Even better, find a therapist or a counselor who can help you learn more about yourself, why you rely on exercise as an outlet, and how to cope outside of the gym.
What Percentage Of People Are Addicted To Exercise?
Less than one percent — 0.3–0.5% — of people are addicted to exercise. However, that rate climbs considerably when we look at only those who train.
8.1% of regular gym-goers and 5% of amateur competitive athletes show signs of exercise addiction without an accompanying eating disorder.
Can Exercise Become an Addiction?
Exercise can become an addiction if the urge to train reaches compulsive levels. The causes of exercise addiction can vary, though.
Some chase the mood-boosting, pain-relieving endorphin rush that occurs after 20–30 minutes. Others train excessively to combat low self-esteem and negative body image.
Is Exercise Addiction a Mental Disorder?
Exercise addiction isn’t a mental disorder, although those addicted to exercise are more likely to struggle with mental health.
Nearly half of people with exercise addiction have an underlying eating disorder, like bulimia or anorexia. Others have depression, anxiety, or body or muscle dysmorphia.
Who Is At Risk Of Exercise Addiction?
The risk of exercise addiction grows as the level of competition increases.
National athletes are more likely to face exercise addiction than regional athletes, and 7–42% of athletes are at high risk.
Leisure exercises reported the lowest rates, with just 3% falling into the “at-risk” category.
Although many believe exercise addiction either isn’t real or serious, like just about any other addiction, it can wreak havoc on every area of your life.
To remain fit without going overboard:
- Set a regular training schedule of 3–5 days per week and stick to it.
- Continue eating a regular diet and avoid excessive calorie cuts or increases.
- Read your body; if your gains are stalling or you notice injuries, rest.
- If you notice exercise becoming more important than anything else in your life, it might be time to re-evaluate the next steps.
- Train in your free time instead of building a schedule around your workouts.
Remember: exercise can be an incredibly satisfying stress-reliever and self-esteem booster — in moderation. Of course, the keyword is “moderation.”
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