Carrie Arnold in Nautilus:
In their 2015 book The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, author Katherine Schreiber and Jacksonville University professor of kinesiology Heather Hausenblas write, “Exercise addicts experience physical activity as both a coping mechanism and a compulsion without which they feel they cannot survive.” People generally feel better both physically and mentally after working out. But for exercise addicts, that positive surge—similar to the ones gambling- and sex-addicts feel—is substantially higher: It can give athletes and non-athletes alike a powerful buzz of pleasure that can leave them coming back for more, ultimately leading to a life tethered to the treadmill, so to speak, and serious medical consequences, including fatigue, overuse injuries (stress fractures, pulled muscles, tendonitis), infections that won’t go away, electrolyte imbalances, cardiac issues, and, perhaps paradoxically, listlessness. To see this play out, we may need to look no further than the Olympics. Exercise addiction seems to increase, at least among athletes, the more elite they become, according to a study, published last month, in Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Tim Brewerton, a physician at the Medical University of South Carolina, agrees. “We venerate Olympic athletes almost like gods. We give them lots of praise and attention, but if we knew anything of what their lives were like…” he says, trailing off. “I think many of them likely experience some type of exercise addiction—they are training constantly for years.”
What makes exercise addiction a thorny phenomenon to study, though, is its complicated relationship with eating disorders. In the 1800s, for example, physicians treating young women with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and persistent weight loss, often noted their extreme restlessness and need to constantly move about. And in a 1984 study, a group of physicians had noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that considerably dedicated male runners, or “obligatory runners,” shared many of the same psychological traits as young women with anorexia, such as perfectionism and depression, although to a lesser degree.