Exercise: Is It Passion Or Addiction?

woman running on a treadmill

Hunter Bennett

You would be hard pressed to find someone who could possibly consider exercising a bad thing. It helps us manage our weight and reduces our risk of disease and illness. Additionally, exercise improves our mental health and cognitive function.

Yep, in the simplest sense, exercise is good.

However, as I am sure most of you know, there are certain scenarios where too much of a good thing, is no longer a good thing. In fact, there are times when too much of a good thing can become an extremely bad thing.

And exercise fits this.

Passion vs addiction

The Collins English dictionary defines passion as ‘a very strong feeling about something, or a strong belief in something’.

To be considered passionate about something, it is commonly accepted that three distinct criteria must be met: The activity must be liked or loved by the individual, they must value the activity highly, and they must enjoy spending time performing the activity (Vallerand, 2008).

There is evidence consistently demonstrating that having a harmonious passion for an activity is related to heightened states of general well-being, increased motivation, and in general, positive life outcomes.

In this manner, passion can fuel both motivation and positive task engagement. It ultimately provides you with a more balanced and meaningful life.

However, it is important to note that not all passion is created equal. You see, passion can be either harmonious or obsessive.woman running up the stairs

Consequently, the obsessive passion for an activity is related to more negative and less adaptive, outcomes. In this scenario, passion can spill over into compulsion, negative emotion, and rigid persistence (Curran, 2015).

In short, the activity becomes addictive, in which it reaches a point where the individual loses immediate control over their ability to manage its performance.

It becomes an activity that they must perform, or they will experience severe negative mental consequences. This is even in scenarios where the activity is causing them physical and emotional harm in the process.

As you can see, there is a stark contrast between positive harmonious passions, obsessive passion, and addiction (Bureau, 2019).

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When does passion become an addiction?

I have already stated that there are two very distinct types of passion, being a harmonious and obsessive passion (Curran, 2015).

Harmonious passion occurs when the activity reflects the qualities that the individual likes about themselves, and then becomes fully integrated into their behavior. This more commonly occurs when an individual is performing an activity within a supportive environment, and the activity is freely chosen because it aligns with their internal beliefs.

The autonomous internalization associated with this type of harmonious passion results in a pattern of behavior that is characterized by wilful engagement, enjoyment, and personal endorsement. The individual engages in the activity out the sense of identity and enjoyment, rather than a sense of compulsion.

Alternatively, obsessive passion occurs when the activity and its outcomes do not fully align with the individual’s identity and conflicts with pre-existing values and goals. This type of passion often originates when the activity is performed in pursuit of a sense of acceptance or self-worth.

In this manner, obsessive passion results in a pattern of behavior that is compulsive and rigid, which serves an end other than performing the activity itself. As a result, while obsessively passionate individuals do indeed love the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it out of a need to self-validate or garner social approval.

In short, they do it for reasons that most would deem unhealthy.

With all this in mind, the type of passion one develops for an activity tends to result from the way in which it comes about, and the reasons for which the activity is performed in the first place.

Now, considering this, obsessive passion can very natural transition into addiction – which is normally indicated by the point in which the activity begins to elicit severe negative social, mental, and health, effects.

What is exercise addiction?

So, given the title of this article, you might be wondering ‘Can you get addicted to working out?’ – in answer, yes you can (Szabo, 2018).

Over the last few years, we have started to see the term exercise addiction appear at increasing intervals within the scientific literature. This severe dysfunction describes the scenario in which individual exercises to the point where they lose control over the pattern and the volume of that exercise.

As alluded to above, exercise then becomes an uncontrollable obligation that results in negative physical, social, and mental consequences.

Exercise addiction vs excessive exercise disorder

It is important to note that when we are discussing exercise addiction, we are not talking about the same thing as excessive exercise disorder.

So, what is excessive exercise disorder?

It essentially describes the scenario in which someone with a pre-diagnosed eating disorder begins to engage in excessive exercise to further contribute to weight management.

This is somewhat different to exercise addiction, as the individual is performing the exercise as a means to an end, and not for the sole purpose of completing that exercise.

What are the warning signs of exercise addiction?

Now, let’s move onto the key exercise addiction signs.

One of the key warning signs associated with exercise addiction is said to be when obsessively passionate exercisers start to spend so much time exercising that it causes them to neglect important life responsibilities (Paradis, 2013).

Those who are developing exercise addiction tend to continuously partake in excessive exercise. They will yearn for additional exercise, between 24 and 36 hours after the completion of their last exercise session. Moreover, they tend to feel a growing sense of guilt and foreboding as they get further and further away from that last training session (Jee, 2016).

Finally, those who are developing exercise addiction begin to feel the need to exercise despite illness, injury, and declines in mental state. In short, they begin to risk their own health for exercising.

Who is more likely to become addicted to exercise?

As this is an extremely new area of research, we are yet to establish a clear cause and effect when it comes to exercise addiction. There are a few exercise addiction risk factors that deserve some consideration.

These exercise addiction risk factors include (Back, 2016):

  • Being younger than 35 years in age
  • Performing sport at an elite level
  • Those who regularly use exercise as a coping mechanism to stress
  • Being heavily concerned with physical appearances
  • Having a poor self-image

While this is far from a comprehensive list of risk factors, it does certainly give some insight into those individuals who may be at a slightly higher risk of developing this debilitating issue.

Are there any underlying disorders associated with exercise addiction?

At this point in time, there are only a few physiological and psychological disorders that appear to increase your risk of developing exercise addiction.

These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia)

As you can see, it looks as if exercise addiction very much develops in response to certain psychological factors, rather than physiological factors.

Related Article: Three Types of Exercise for Reducing Anxiety

Exercise addiction treatment

One of the key things we actually know about exercise addiction is that it is similar in premise to other addictions. As a result, we do not have a clear treatment per se. However, we do have some approaches that we can use to help facilitate rehabilitation (Jee, 2016).

Since regular exercise has obvious health benefits, we should try and promote an active lifestyle while recalibrating the role that exercise plays in life.

This means reconfirming that the performance of a specific exercise is not what makes an individual who they are. That their identity is so much more than just a runner, or just a cyclist. They can also recognize their value as a human being who contributes to society on a daily basis.

Now, this is much easier said than done. which is why many people with exercise addiction are quickly referred to a psychiatrist for treatment.

It is also recommended that treatment therapies for exercise addicts include the development of healthy eating habits. Exercise addicts need strategies aimed at improving self-esteem and body image and the gradual incorporation of healthy alternative recreational pursuits, which are performed out of the internal joy for that pursuit.

I should note that exercise addiction may take months, or even years, to overcome – so patience is key (as always).

Exercise addiction prevention

Last but not least, I wanted to touch on the prevention of exercise addiction.

As with our treatments, there is very little research within this area. I do believe that we can draw some conclusions from the above sections about how we can prevent the onset of exercise addiction.

woman doing push ups at a gym

First and foremost, it is important to reflect upon the reasons as to why you exercise. Is it because you want to better yourself? Is it because you enjoy the activity? Or because you like the social aspect that comes with it?

Or is it because you feel an innate need to fit in? Because you want people to notice you? Or because it is what you think others want you to do?

Realizing why you exercise can allow you to identify whether you are performing exercise obsessively or harmoniously. You can then adjust accordingly.

Secondly, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge that exercise is indeed important. This is not because it makes us who we are. Rather, it is one of the many tools you have available to help you live a fulfilling life.

By acknowledging that the exercise you perform is not who you are, you can allow yourself to look to those things that you truly enjoy. Figure out what you get fulfillment from doing and then chase it with religious fervor.

Finally, you should try and find modes of exercise that resonate with who you are and what you want to be. Look for exercise that you enjoy performing simply for the sake of performing it. Exercise that you want to perform because it makes you happy, not because you feel you must.

Tick these boxes and I can assure you that you will be much happier for it.

Take Home Message

Exercise is one of the most important things that you can do for your health. But performing it in an addictive and obsessive manner can actually have the opposite effect. It can impact your health and wreaking havoc with your life in the process.

Take a step back and really analyze why you choose to exercise. Then, make some adjustments to correct if you think it is necessary. It might do you a world of good.


Vallerand, Robert J. “On the psychology of passion: In search of what makes people’s lives most worth living.”. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne 49.1 (2008): 1.

Curran, Thomas, et al. “The psychology of passion: A meta-analytical review of a decade of research on intrapersonal outcomes.”. Motivation and Emotion 39.5 (2015): 631-655.

Bureau, Alexander, et al. “Passion for Exercise: Passion’s Relationship to General Fitness Indicators and Exercise Addiction.”. International Journal of Exercise Science 12.5 (2019): 122-135.

Szabo, Attila. “Addiction, passion, or confusion? New theoretical insights on exercise addiction research from the case study of a female bodybuilder.”. Europe’s Journal of psychology 14.2 (2018): 296.

Paradis, Kyle F., et al. “Too much of a good thing? Examining the relationship between passion for exercise and exercise dependence.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14.4 (2013): 493-500.

Jee, Yong-Seok. “Exercise addiction and rehabilitation.” Journal of exercise rehabilitation 12.2 (2016): 67.

Back, Jenny. “Profiles of Exercise Dependence–A person-centred approach to study potential mechanisms.” (2016).

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