Menus Subscribe Search

Go Outside

exercise-addiction

(Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock)

The Seduction of Addiction: A Runner’s Confession

• February 21, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock)

The psychological literature on exercise addiction can be confusing, but maybe that’s because we’re focusing too much on pathologizing the wrong thing.

When I first started running regularly, about 30 years ago, three miles qualified as a decent workout. That distance soon crept up to five miles. After training for my first marathon in 1992—26.2 miles—it was six or seven. When I joined an official marathon-training group about a decade ago, eight became the magic number. Today, as an avid marathoner and sometimes ultra-marathoner, I need to run closer to 10 miles a day to feel the satisfaction of a workout. It’s not unusual for me to have run 15 miles before the rest of my household has even gotten out of bed.

This might not sound like much of a problem. And in many ways it’s not. Aside from a pulled hamstring and a torn meniscus, running has generally kept me in good physical condition. Even in middle age, it’s hard to run 60 to 70 miles a week and become overweight. Research shows that avid runners tend to avoid depression, sleep relatively well, and experience reduced stress—all of which has generally been the case for me. Plus, because I routinely exercise with a large group, running has become, for me, as much a social as a physical activity, thus delivering the numerous benefits that an active social life has been shown to confer.

But still, there are times—usually when I’m thoroughly exhausted—that I find myself concerned about what increasingly looks like an addiction. The fact that I now need more and more miles to experience the benefits of physical exercise comes uncomfortably close to the chronic substance abuser who needs more and more hits to get high, or the alcoholic who needs more and more drinks to feel sedation. Perhaps we’re too quick to highlight addiction when an activity becomes intense, but still, the parallels are hard to ignore.

Would addicts be pushed to go cold turkey, as many drug and alcohol addicts are advised to do? That option would deny them the real benefits of a healthy activity they had merely taken too far.

Adding to my concern is the poor judgment that too often interrupts an already intense workout regime. Two weeks ago I woke up feeling a little under the weather, but this condition didn’t keep me from leaving the house at 4:45 a.m. in rainy, 38-degree weather to cover 11 miles with hill intervals worked in for good measure. It was really never a choice. I wouldn’t have considered doing anything else. When I finally made it back home I felt like death, immediately came down with a high fever, and was confined to bed for three days. This was, I had to admit it, a self-inflicted flu.

And I’m smarter than that.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL LITERATURE ON exercise addiction can be confusing. Despite the inclusion of other behavioral addictions (such as gambling), exercise addiction is currently not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That exclusion, however, hasn’t prevented an upsurge of professional research on the subject, especially over the last 20 years, as endurance activities such as marathoning and triathlons have spiked in popularity.

What we now have is a lot of information about a problem that’s not officially a problem, but is still deemed by experts to be possibly “devastating” (PDF). Making matters more confounding is the fact that intense exercise is often prescribed to help mitigate the effects of certain mental conditions (such as depression), reiterating the paradox that an activity we should all be doing for our physical and mental health—regular exercise—can also ruin both.

Fortunately, there are a few things we do know with reasonable assurance about this otherwise elusive condition. An estimated three percent of the general population suffers from exercise dependency. The more endurance-oriented the sport—ultra-marathoning, Iron Man competitions—the better the chances there are for some sort of addiction to set in. Exercise addiction overlaps with other disorders—most notably eating disorders, but also drug and alcohol abuse—about 25 percent of the time.

We also know what this dependency is not. However it ends up being officially codified, exercise addiction (or what looks like it) has been clearly distinguished from obsessive-compulsive disorders (such as anxiety-related issues) and impulsive control disorders (such as gambling). Unlike these behaviors, excessive exercise is more like an addiction in that—like so many other addictions—it’s notable for a “dual capacity to reduce negative affective states while also creating positive affects, be it a rush or improved mood.” In other words: a double whammy, one that, fully experienced, is hard to resist.

The most useful research on exercise addiction charts a plausible course of declension from recreational exercise to dysfunction. In this sense, it offers something of a behavioral map for nervous runners to check in on from time to time. On the safe end of the spectrum, there’s recreational exercise. As one would expect, this is the kind of exercise that substantially improves our quality of life. One controls the exercise, can stop when it’s time to stop, enjoys basic health and fitness benefits from it, doesn’t freak out when it’s missed, and appreciates the modest changes in physical appearance—changes that enhance self-esteem and inspire dedication to staying fit and living the good life.

But from there it’s a slippery slope into darker territory. “At risk exercise” involves a more conscious awareness of exercise’s mood enhancing impact. There may be a neurochemical element kicking in for those whose workout schedule enters this phase, with endorphin production dropping off and the body making up for that decline by working harder to extract pleasure from more sustained physical exertion. My own experience of needing increasingly more miles to feed the seductive opiate rush of a workout speaks to the insidious impact of this possible chemical rationing. The body and mind recall all too vividly what it’s like to exist (blissfully, mind you) in post-exercise equilibrium and will do what it must do to rediscover that balance. When your workouts are overly tuned in to this “high,” you may have crossed a line.

The next phase approaches the doorstep of addiction. It’s what Marilyn Freimuth et al, who have cogently laid out this typology, call “problematic exercise.” Leading researchers on the topic tellingly explore this phase using the psychological criteria for substance dependence. Much like a problem drinker who keeps drinking despite having had enough alcohol to alleviate stress, the problematic exerciser will pile on the miles despite having already met the articulated goal.

I see this behavior all the time among my fellow runners. If the training schedule says to do 18 miles, with 10 miles at marathon goal pace (MGP), runners will do 20 to 22 miles, with 12 of those miles well ahead of MGP. They will do this—I will do this—despite the counterproductive fatigue and increased risk of injury that inevitably results. Then they’ll spend the day kind of proud of the added effort. Throw in the physical benefits that accrue from kicking your own ass during a hard workout, and this failure to stick to a rational plan becomes easier to understand. Elite runners tend to like how they look.

The final stage is all out addiction. According to Friemuth et al, this is the point at which “the frequency and intensity of exercise continues until this behavior becomes life’s main organizing principle.” Existence centers on exercise. I’ve seen a lot of this. I’ve known runners who, stuck in a hotel with no treadmill or safe place to run, will, in a mild panic, jog around the parking lot for 90 minutes. I recently interviewed an elite triathlete in her fifties who, when she had to miss a day of working out (which she does for about three hours a day, every day), fasted.

Potentially addicted runners will cheat family time to run, sneak in runs without telling people, design vacations around exercise opportunities, will (if injured) count the days since their last run like an alcoholic counts the days since his last drink, and forgo sex to run (we often joke that nobody spends a Saturday morning running 20 miles because they have a great sex life). It seems certain that, if these symptoms are in any way common, running addiction will become an official disorder in due time.

The problem, from the perspective of these symptoms, seems quite real.

BUT THEN WHAT? IT’S hard to imagine how such “addicts” would be treated in a clinical setting. Would they be pushed to go cold turkey, as many drug and alcohol addicts are advised to do? That option would deny them the real benefits of a healthy activity they had merely taken too far. In the end, quitting could lead to a worse situation than the one the addict was already in. Scaling back, which is becoming an option for substance abusers, seems like it would be a more realistic option. But here, too, it’s hard to see how—given the tendency of the high to diminish for the exercise freak—the temptation to add one more mile could be resisted, especially when acute negative consequences do not result. It’s hard to imagine ever effectively treating this “disorder.”

In the course of writing this piece a friend asked me to pace him during the Austin Marathon, which I agreed to do. As our mileage reached a point where the body begins to yell back a bit—around 18 miles—I fell into thinking how unhealthy this activity was—a line of thought no doubt reflecting the reading I’ve been doing on exercise addiction. But then again, I wondered, why was I so deeply at ease with the world, in spite of the pain, as I moved through space for several hours? Contemplating the mysterious nature of this pleasure, something occurred to me that led to rethinking the whole idea of exercise addiction: Those we classify as exercise addicts might be a rare sort who are honoring what their bodies are designed to do and, historically, have done.

I don’t mean to simply regurgitate the Born to Run thesis so much as expand it to help better address the problem of exercise addiction. Consider that less than two hundred years ago life was predominantly agricultural. The sheer physicality of work was enormous. But men, women, and children did it every day. They had to. Was the Puritan work ethic enhanced with an endorphin rush? The Puritans aren’t saying. But it seems perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the physical nature of life left pre-industrial people with a sense of bodily and mental equilibrium that, at the end of the day, they might have enjoyed. Today, by contrast, we spend most of our days sedentary while seeking to pathologize those who move around too much. And too many of us feel lousy.

What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary—which could be just as unnatural as seeking to be drunk or high—while the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

More From James McWilliams

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.