What It Means When You're Craving Exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular exercise helps you manage your weight, improves your cognition, and boosts your mental health. Just to keep your weight, the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week plus two days of strength training. Yet a 2020 report from the CDC said that about half of people got this recommended amount of aerobic exercise, and 28% met the aerobic and strength recommendations each week.

On the other hand, you might be one of those people who love to exercise because it releases the endorphin and dopamine neurotransmitters that make you feel good, similar to opioids, perĀ Within Health. After a workout, you might continue to ride that high of a great burn, but later you could experience somewhat of a withdrawal. That motivates you to head back out the next day for another workout.

Some people will build a tolerance for these neurotransmitters, which means that they need more exercise to get that high from the dopamine and endorphin neurotransmitters. Craving exercise might sound like a positive trait, but when you have an uncontrollable need for exercise, it can indicate a psychological condition. Yes, you can get addicted to exercise.

Compulsive exercise is linked to other mental health conditions

Melissa Ertl, Ph.D., is a psychologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She defines exercise addiction as the "craving of physical activity that results in extreme exercise that significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or occurs despite injury or other medical complications" (via Columbia University Department of Psychiatry).

Compulsive exercise isn't officially recognized as a mental health condition, but it often coexists with conditions such as eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to a 2017 article in Psychology Research and Behavior Management. People who compulsively exercise might also exhibit traits such as narcissism, perfectionism, and neuroticism. Some researchers have linked exercise addiction with alcohol use disorder. Others connected it with behavioral disorders based on six criteria, such as having conflicts with friends and family about how much you exercise.

Even though exercise can be beneficial to your mental health, exercising too much can have negative consequences. Aside from the risk of being injured, compulsive exercise can also result in depression and problems with your social life.

Addressing compulsive exercise

The fitness industry can complicate recognizing an exercise addiction. After all, people will often turn to group exercise classes to feel like they belong to a healthy community. Sometimes your body image can be tied up into your exercise program, so it can be difficult to cut back on your exercise if you see it interfering with your life. Compulsive exercise can be difficult to treat because it's difficult to identify, and often addicted exercisers will resist treatment, according to the 2017 article in Psychology Research and Behavior Management.

Treating exercise addiction doesn't necessarily mean giving up exercise altogether. Instead, people learn how to develop a healthy relationship with exercise that doesn't interfere with their lives or their health. Cognitive behavior therapy and other one-on-one treatments can teach compulsive exercisers ways to handle stressors that drive them toward exercise. Group therapy can also offer emotional support, and therapeutic interviewing techniques can motivate compulsive exercisers to change their behavior. Sometimes treating the coexisting disorder (like an eating disorder) can also address compulsive exercise (per Within Health).