Regular moderate-intensity exercise has been extensively promoted by health and lifestyle professionals for years, and widely used in prevention strategies to keep physical diseases and mental distress away (Gleeson et al., 2011). Most people who regularly exercise have a more positive body image and a better general life satisfaction than non-exercisers (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006).
However, just like anything else, exercise as well can become addictive and damaging when the fitness goals meet other factors that together overwrite the bodily feedback of how much is too much. The resulting excessive exercise is characterised by a compelling feeling to engage in it, guilt if postponed, and maintenance of it despite being aware of the potential illness it can cause (Seigel & Hetta, 2001). Relatively little is known about the causes of individual vulnerability to excessive exercise, but there are certain theories under the radar of recent research efforts.
Excessive exercising has been studied for years within the athletic environment due to its impact on performance. It is understood that improving an athlete’s performance requires completing high-intensity and volume exercises, followed by recovery periods sessions (Rocha et al., 2019). The performance pressure of an elite athlete can, however, disrupt the delicate balance between high-load exercise sessions and adequate recovery periods. The resulting overtraining has serious detrimental effects (known as overtraining syndrome) showing way beyond performance decline. It often causes depression, insomnia, musculoskeletal trauma (Eichner, 1995) and pathological conditions in the hypothalamus, liver, and heart (Rocha et al., 2019).
Recognising the problem before more serious symptoms appear is the responsibility of the trainer, and requires noticing the early symptoms, such as changes in mood, changes in training habit, uncharacteristic behaviour and performance decline. Symptoms, however, are often disregarded and trainers and athletes attempt to compensate for poor performance with more excessive training which leads to a vicious cycle (Schorb et al, 2021). Creating an environment which promotes conscious training and self-awareness to avoid overtraining is amongst the main prevention methods but is often undermined by the widespread beliefs among coaches and athletes that ‘pain makes you stronger’ and ‘you must push through your limits’. Along with the one-size-fits-all training plans that fails to incorporate the individual needs of the athletes, the athletic setup itself becomes the most common factor in developing exercise and eating disorders.
In the context of hobby and semi-professional athletes, several sociocultural trends contribute to exercise dependency even without the pressure of professional performance. Widespread “healthism” movements, claiming to promote health consciousness, create non-exerciser stereotypes by endorsing the idea that regular exercise is a moral obligation and that those who do not exercise are weak or deviant (Crawford, 1980). Globally streamed reality shows often normalise extreme fitness ideals, reducing health to body fitness and supporting a particular health consciousness that is more of a “fitnessism” than actual health. They promote a very fit body as a sign of self-discipline, self-control, and willpower.
However, fitnessism seems to mainly encourage “aesthetic labour” and support commercial interests to exploit body dissatisfaction (Eriksson, 2022). Both of these ongoing trends—healthism and fitnessism—promote a distorted image of health and idolise the neglection of bodily symptoms, advancing self-abuse in the disguise of self-discipline.
The sociocultural pressures of healthism and fitnessism bring about harmful exercise and eating patterns in both genders (Halliwell & Harvey, 2006) but a higher occurrence of compulsive exercise was found in case of men (White & Halliwell, 2010) due to the additional pressure derived from the cultural stereotype of a “large man”.
Neuroscientific research on compulsive behaviour found that the brain region, called the ventral striatum, is a central regulator in the dopamine-rewarding system linked to addiction and is also involved in people’s ability to socially connect (Inagaki, 2020). Findings suggests that social connection is the main supplier of the reward system (Lieberman, 2014) and without the ability to connect socially, the neurochemical balance has to be recovered in other ways, resulting in drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviours (Heiling et al., 2016) or other compulsive behaviour. In a socially deprived state, almost anything can become addictive, even seemingly healthy activities such as exercising (Mate, 2010).
The lack of social connections, known as loneliness, is characterised by not having enough reciprocal and authentic human bonds, and is independent of the number of connections one has (Hotard et al., 1989). Loneliness is commonly discussed as the opposite end of the belongingness scale, considering lonely people as having an unmet need to belong (Mellor et al., 2008).
Rook’s (1978) data suggested that contrary to the popular belief that social support creates impact via delivering practical help, that aspect is in fact secondary (except in extreme circumstances in which major assistance is needed), whereas the relationship aspect of the social support carries the main impact. They help via making the person feeling listened to and integrated. Even one companion that enables intimate disclosure—a ‘you got a friend in me’ experience—can keep someone away from the most severe consequence of isolation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and compulsive behaviours like exercise dependence, overeating, drug seeking etc. While the lack of social connectedness leaves the reward system deprived, increases the brain’s hypersensitivity to the reward process and predisposes people to addiction. Loneliness predicts well-documented clinical risk factors (Pantell et al., 2013) and has been recognised as a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality (Cacioppo et al., 2014).
Building social connections is not without risk though (Ignatius & Kokkonen, 2007); they can be exploitative and traumatising, as modern psychology knows for a long time that most unusual behaviour is an understandable response to damaging relationships (Laing, 1960). That makes seeking for, or investing in, human connections a risky activity. The process requires gradually opening up to someone, sharing more and more personal details and responding to others’ disclosure with similar openness (Altman & Taylor, 1973).
It’s always a bit of a gamble where losing is particularly painful. This explains why it is often replaced by reward-related activities (e.g., feeding, exercise, hookups, substance use, collecting connections etc.) (Lewis et al., 2021). In order for us to safely seek for connections to feel belonging and avoid exercise dependence, we need to develop effective social skills to recognise others’ clues, and adaptive coping strategies to handle when our clues don’t lend well. Both require individual strategies, ranging from reading blogs like this, to finding supportive mental health professionals.
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