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Exercise Addiction in Men

When exercise becomes too much
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Exercise addicts are high achievers continued...

Addiction can also mean exercising at inappropriate times. “I have people who run in thunderstorms. I had a patient once who had to have a run while his wife was in labor,” says Yates

Still, it can be hard to diagnose exercise addiction in professional athletes: “I’ll say, ‘You have an Achilles injury. Why are you still running on that tendon?’” says Debbie Rhea, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University. “And they’ll say, ‘I can’t stop because I’m injured. This is my job.’”

Society’s role in exercise addiction

Some over-exercisers have what psychiatrist Diane A. Klein, MD, of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, calls a “primary dependence.” Others are anorexics who run to help complete their obsession with food and weight control.

To be sure, the population of exercise addicts is a bit different from that of, say, cocaine addicts. Exercise, like being thin, is highly reinforced by society, says Klein. “So for people driven to achieve, to be perfectionists, and to be in optimal health, it’s kind of understandable that they become excessive.”

Rhea works with male body builders who are preoccupied with their looks. Unlike female anorexics, who always think they are too fat, men with muscle dysmorphia, as the condition is called, think they are too small and scrawny.

“They want to get bigger and bigger and bigger, not in fat but in muscle size,” Rhea says. And they often become so preoccupied with their strength exercises that they lose their jobs, lose their girlfriends and wives, and neglect their children.

Treatment for exercise addiction

Treatment for exercise addiction, say the therapists, involves getting the athletes to see they have a problem and that change is necessary. “You have to give them a sense of worth. Maybe they never had a good self-concept. Is it something that happened in childhood? Maybe there’s addiction in the family,” Rhea says.

Some runners who run into trouble start by becoming addicted to “runner’s high,” a feeling of elation caused by the release of hormones. Yates says, “There’s a change in the psyche — they talk about almost out-of-body experiences, feeling as if they can change the world.” But eventually, the adrenal gland burns out and they crash. “What was once gratifying becomes painful and controlling. It becomes a bad thing, but they can’t get out of it.”

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