Editors Note: No one can question the health benefits of exercise. But when the craving becomes an addiction it can be dangerous for both your physical and spiritual health. Overcoming compulsions such as this are one of the goals of Buddhist practice and living. Normal disclaimers: please always consult your health practitioners.
Behavioral addictions, much like substance addictions, can negatively impact one’s life, health, and spiritual path. Though moderate amounts of exercise can produce positive results, too much exercise can cause injury, hormonal disruption, and mental health struggles. Excessive exercise may also be a sign of exercise addiction. [For information, see>>]
By Ruth Fernandez
What Causes Exercise Addiction?
Interestingly, addiction research sometimes overlaps with a Buddhist framework, albeit with different terminology. Consider the causes of exercise addiction, for example. A Buddhist in recovery may notice some familiar concepts as they learn about this disorder.
Distorted Body Image
Often, an addiction to exercise begins with a distorted sense of the physical body. A person may become obsessed with losing weight, building muscle, or changing their physical appearance in general.
In other words, it’s a form of vibhava-tanha, or the craving to avoid painful experiences. Living with distorted body image is mentally and emotionally painful, and an exercise addiction may begin as a way to alleviate that pain.
Endorphins and Dopamine
Exercise releases endorphins, or chemicals that lower stress, relieve pain, and generally make the brain and body feel good.
In moderate amounts, endorphins are good for people. In fact, they’re essential to human health. Some spiritual practices, including meditation, have been shown to boost endorphins.
Endorphins, however, work in a similar way to opioids, which are highly addictive.
Exercise also releases dopamine, a chemical that boosts happiness and focus. Like endorphins, dopamine is good for people in regular amounts. This is why moderate exercise has such a mood-boosting effect.
Extreme amounts of exercise, however, may harm the brain’s dopamine receptors. As the brain begins to expect a large dopamine release during exercise, it may remove some of its own dopamine receptors to maintain balance. When this happens, regular amounts of dopamine will not have the same pleasurable effects.
From a Buddhist perspective, exercise addiction has striking ties to kama-tanha, or craving for sense pleasures. This longing for something impermanent reflects the overarching cycle of human suffering.
Signs of an Exercise Addiction
Addiction treatment providers often reference the “Four Cs” of addiction: craving, compulsion, consequences, and control. These four pillars can help people determine whether they have an addiction or simply enjoy a substance or activity.
The concept of craving will sound familiar to any Buddhist practitioner. As one of the three poisons of Buddhism, craving, or attachment, shifts focus toward impermanent things that cannot provide satisfaction.
In addiction research, craving refers to an intense desire for the object of one’s addiction. In this case, it means the desire to exercise. Craving, however, goes beyond simple desire. For someone with an addiction, cravings can become so powerful that they feel like “needs.”
A person with an exercise addiction will feel compelled to work out, even during times when a workout would be detrimental or get in the way of other responsibilities. Signs of exercise compulsion may include:
- feeling anxious over the thought of skipping a workout
repeatedly using exercise as a form of escape
never skipping a workout, even under extreme circumstances
prioritizing exercise over all other aspects of life
missing important events in favor of exercise
Under ordinary circumstances, negative consequences discourage people from repeating harmful behaviors. However, addiction makes people pursue certain behaviors in spite of those consequences. The temporary pleasure of the addictive behavior — or the temporary relief from pain — outweighs any long-term destructive results. For instance, someone with an exercise addiction may continue to work out even if they get injured.
The final sign of addiction is control, or rather, the lack of control. A person may try to quit or cut back on the object of their addiction, but if they have an addiction, they will not be able to do so without help.
What to Do about an Exercise Addiction
If you think you may have an exercise addiction or any other addiction, you may find strength in your spiritual practice. As you figure out how your recovery and spirituality intersect, take some time to talk to your doctor about your health concerns. This first step can make a big difference in your life.
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