ATHLETE x SCIENCE
There is a fine line between a healthy habit and an addictive obsession. The phrase ‘healthy obsession’ is really an oxymoron, since obsession is arguably a pathological, diseased state of the mind, and therefore not healthy. Definitions for obsession range from ‘compelling motivation’ to ‘compulsive preoccupation’. However you want to label it, obsession relates to an altered state of consciousness in which the need or compulsion to do a certain act overpowers all else, becoming a priority over all other needs and obligations in a person’s life.
When exercise becomes the obsession, the risk of dependence is lurking like an obsequious servant. You may have heard of the so called, ‘runner’s high,’ which presents as a euphoria from the natural opioid-like chemicals, called endorphins, released in the brain during exercise (Freimuth, Moniz, & Kim, 2011). Another theory proposed to explain the euphoric mechanism has to do with catecholamine release, which directly improves mood, attention, movement, and the body’s endocrine/cardiovascular responses to stress (Freimuth et al., 2011).
For a habitual runner, the “high” comes further and further into the run as tolerance is built. The desire to reach euphoria creates an internal drive and self-motivating factor that increases pain tolerance in order achieve this elevated state with every workout. The reward is greater with every level breached and a dependency on the feeling of euphoria is created, much like a drug addiction. Addiction is most likely to occur when the behavior is the primary or sole means of coping with internal distress (Freimuth et al., 2011), or at least the only successful outlet. Dependency requires that the person commit to the exercise no matter the cost, through injury and illness alike.
According to Modolo et al. (2011), compulsive athletes report four components of addiction: 1) feeling euphoria, 2) the need to increase the dose of exercise to obtain feelings of well-being (tolerance), 3) difficulties in the performance of professional or social activities (rearrangement of priorities) and 4) symptoms of the absence or need, including depression, irritability, and anxiety, when unable to engage in the activity (withdrawal). This study also found a direct relationship between the intensity of exercise and the severity of withdrawal symptoms (Modolo et al., 2011). The time spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from workouts and the continuance despite exacerbating physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems are two more signs that a healthy habit has turned into a neurotic addiction (Freimuth et al., 2011). More negative characteristics include low self-esteem, the use of exercise as management or manipulation of psychological states, increasing body dissatisfaction, and chronic vulnerability to overtraining injuries (Gapin, Etnier, & Tucker, 2009).
The physical manifestations of exercise dependence have been most documented in distance runners; persistent soft tissue injuries (sprains and strains), stress fractures, pressure sores, gastrointestinal blood loss and iron-deficiency anemia just name a few of the damaging side effects observed in this population (DeCoverly Veale, 1987).
From a genetic standpoint, asymmetry in the brain has been correlated to negative emotions and psychological dysfunction. One study in particular found a relationship between frontal lobe brain asymmetry and exercise addiction, implying that exercise directly activates and alters the part of the frontal lobe responsible for affect and mood, thereby improving negative emotions (Gapin, Etnier, & Tucker, 2009). There are often feelings of guilt associated with the absence of or inability to exercise for even one day, and dieting to improve performance is common (DeCoverly Veale, 1987). It should be noted that there is a strong risk and link between eating disorders and excessive exercise, since it is often the primary means of weight loss (DeCoverly Veale, 1987). It is important to distinguish one from the other, usually by analyzing the motive for exercise and other associated symptoms that may point toward the diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Some of the most serious athletes in the world walk this fine line of obsession and addiction with every training run. Coaches need to be aware of both the psychological and physical warning signs that an athlete is falling into this trap. It is much more difficult to reverse the psychology after breaching the point of exercise addiction, and professional intervention may be required. It is the coach’s responsibility to create a healthy mindset and training atmosphere whilst keeping the training intensity high enough for performance gains.
Ensuring that an athlete takes rest seriously and recovers on “easy” days without deviating from an “easy” pace, are two simple ways to keeping an overly driven athlete in check. For those self-coached athletes, it is even more imperative to take a step back from yourself and do a self-assessment, asking your own body from an objective standpoint and answering honestly. It’s important to remember that a healthy athlete, both mentally and physically, will have a more sustainable, successful athletic career without sacrificing other needs and obligations in life.
DeCoverly Veale, D. M. W. (1987). Exercise dependence. British Journal of Addiction, 82(7), 735-40.
Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: Differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. Int. Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8, 4069-81.
Gapin, J., Etnier, J. L., & Tucker, D. (2009). The relationship between frontal brain asymmetry and exercise addiction. Journal of Psychophysiology, 23(3), 135-42.
Modolo, V.B., Antunes, H. K. M., deGimenez, P. R. B., Santiago, M. L. D., Tufik, S., & deMello, M. T. (2011). Negative addiction to exercise: Are there differences between genders. Clinics, 66(2), 255-60.