02/03/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can Exercise Be Addicting?

By Laura Schwecherl

Think not getting enough exercise is the only problem Americans face? People who exercise too much may be troubled as well. When time is stripped from work, family, and friends to excessively exercise, addiction may be to blame.

Gimme a Break -- Why It Matters
This is no chocolate addiction: 47 percent of American adults suffer some type of addictive disorder, and exercise can be one of them. In one study with involuntary participants (read: rats), the ones that were deprived of food voluntarily ran the longest and displayed symptoms similar to heroin withdrawal. Researchers concluded that too much exercise may be similar to drug abuse and, in some cases, linked to eating disorders. In fact, nearly half of exercise addicts have reported having an eating disorder, and 15 to 20 percent are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

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Just like an alcohol or drug addiction, there are health dangers to excessive exercise, such as repetitive stress injuries, heart problems and bone loss. And some suggest that more than an hour of exercise may not do a body good, so there's no need to camp out at the gym. And for a little bliss, researchers have found as little as 10 minutes of working up a sweat can help boost our mood.

Obligatory Exercise -- Your Action Plan
But what exactly defines too much exercise? To help diagnose addiction, researchers break it down into six warning signs:

1. Tolerance. Is that five-mile run no longer challenging? How about those 20 burpees? Having to increase exercise to extreme amounts to feel accomplished may be a sign of addiction. There is a difference between an increased level of fitness and over-exercising.

2. Withdrawal. Does skipping the gym lead to feeling anxious, moody or make it hard to fall asleep at night? Taking a break from working out shouldn't be stressful, so take note if a day off actually creates excessive restlessness.

3. Lack of control. Feeling the need to run a daily marathon? Taking a break and putting away the weights shouldn't be a problem, so be aware if it becomes impossible to stay away from the gym.

4. Intention. Today's workout plan said 50 minutes of yoga, so why tack on an extra hour of running? Going well beyond the workout plan can be a sign of addiction, especially if it becomes a consistent problem.

5. Time. Can't make the dinner date because of an extended workout? Late to work because that post-workout stretching session went a little too long? Another exercise addiction red flag is when working out takes away from relationships and obligations.

6. Continuance. Still hitting the gym even if excessive exercise is sparking emotional and physical distress? Continuing to push through workouts even though we know it's harmful to our physical and mental health is an addiction warning sign.

Although the signs may be clear, there is limited literature on exercise addiction treatment. Yet researchers suggest abstaining from exercise entirely is not the way to beat addiction. Instead, working out in moderation or trying a new form of exercise may help control the amount of exercise performed. Try swapping swimming for running, or yoga for a day of heavy lifting.

And stick to what the professionals say: The amount of exercise recommended for adults is 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week, with two or three days of strength training in the mix. Resting and recovering are also important and can help improve performance in the long run. So remember to take a break -- the roads, dumbbells and yoga mats will still be there in the morning.

The Takeaway
Excessive exercise may be a sign of an unhealthy addiction.

Exercise addiction is a behavioral addiction similar to alcohol and drug dependence.

There are both mental and physical health risks involved when exercising too much.

Sticking to recommended amounts of exercise and rest is vital to improving workout performance and maintaining a healthy balance.