When Workout Endorphins Replace Unhealthy Addictions

On the face of it, getting fitter is great. But when exercise gets out of hand, can it become just one more addiction?

You’ve had a tough day at work. You can feel stress clawing at your nerves. You need to do something to calm yourself, find some way to redirect that negative energy. Other people might light a cigarette, reach for comfort food, or find the nearest bar. You head to the gym. Is lifting your drug?

Plenty of folk step into the squat rack to sooth the frustrations of a stressful day. Others work out to fill empty hours which might otherwise be lonely. Most of us get started on this fitness journey for healthy, positive reasons. And good nutrition and lifting weights are healthy lifestyle changes for the majority. But for some people, the hobby becomes an obsession which takes up way too much time, energy, and head space. Can fitness be an addiction? Can competing be a bad habit?

Fitness can be addictive. The “happy hormones” from exercise feel like the high from drinking or drug use. Expert studies show that intense lifting boosts brain chemicals (including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline) . These are the same chemicals sparked by the most addictive legal and illegal drugs. Research into this area of mental health and psychology is being put to good use. Work led by Madhukar H. Trivedi, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is helping practitioners prescribe exercise to treat depression. But do some people abuse that workout high to avoid facing the emotional pain of addiction? The exercise industry and the addiction recovery industry in the US are worth roughly the same amount ($20bn each).