An estimated three percent of the general population suffers from exercise dependency. The more endurance-oriented the sport—ultra-marathoning, Iron Man competitions—the better the chances there are for some sort of addiction to set in. Exercise addiction overlaps with other disorders—most notably eating disorders, but also drug and alcohol abuse—about 25 percent of the time. ...He details the varying stages of the addition and concludes:
It’s hard to see how—given the tendency of the high to diminish for the exercise freak—the temptation to add one more mile could be resisted, especially when acute negative consequences do not result. It’s hard to imagine ever effectively treating this “disorder.”While I find this interesting, I have a hard time seeing running or endurance exercise as an addition on par with a chemical addition. Despite what he says, its seems to me that there's a world of difference between not wanting to stop something and being unable to stop something (e.g., as in the case of a meth addict). Glibly, I note that our bodies also have a built-in way of treating this type of disorder: it's called injury. I know more that one person who has over-trained or over-raced themselves into an injury that could have been easily avoided if only they had rested now and again.
Regardless, I think any person who doesn't recognize that any endurance athlete gets off of endorphins is fooling themselves. I've always looked at it as similar to people that get hooked on spicy food. McWilliams describes it this way:
My own experience of needing increasingly more miles to feed the seductive opiate rush of a workout speaks to the insidious impact of this possible chemical rationing. The body and mind recall all too vividly what it’s like to exist (blissfully, mind you) in post-exercise equilibrium and will do what it must do to rediscover that balance.Andrew astutely brings in Stanton Peele, who points out that
“People can become addicted to anything, whether drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, gambling, love, or sex, if it is the focus of an encapsulating experience that alleviates bad feelings and buttresses their self-esteem”Which seems to me to get more to the point. I feel that "addictions" of these kinds aren't so much a change in body chemistry leading to loss of decision-making ability as they are a positive feedback loop gone awry. The trick to to realize that and put it in perspective. Easier said than done, but to my mind a better way of treating the condition than like you would a normal addiction.
Interestingly enough, McWilliams concludes his article by flipping the whole premise on its head:
Contemplating the mysterious nature of this pleasure, something occurred to me that led to rethinking the whole idea of exercise addiction: Those we classify as exercise addicts might be a rare sort who are honoring what their bodies are designed to do and, historically, have done.Now that's a theory I can get behind!
What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary—which could be just as unnatural as seeking to be drunk or high—while the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?
Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox