Why am I addicted to exercise?

Question to the brain

Prof. Dr. Oliver Stoll, Martin Luther University Halle- Wittenberg, Institute for Communication, Media and Sport, Department of Sport Science, Work Area Sport Psychology, Sport Education and Sport Sociology:

That is a question that is not that easy to answer. For this, the more detailed circumstances would have to be known: Does the person use the training to compensate, i.e. to suppress a problem? Is she preparing for a competition? Are you experiencing withdrawal symptoms?

It is difficult for a layperson to make a diagnosis, and even a psychiatrist or psychologist has problems with it. This is primarily due to the fact that the clinical diagnostic manuals do not even mention the term “sports addiction”. And although the disorder is the subject of research, there are no large-scale studies on it, such as in the pharmaceutical sector. No wonder - sports addiction is extremely rare.

Only around one to four percent of the population suffer from primary sports addiction, which is not accompanied by any other illness. In my entire career, I've only met a handful of people whom I would diagnose in this way. Secondary sports addiction, which mostly affects women and occurs together with an eating disorder, is somewhat more common. About 15 to 20 percent of all bulimic or anorexic people exercise compulsively to burn calories.

We have developed a questionnaire that simplifies diagnosis. With this screening instrument we can find out, for example, whether someone is using the fitness center or the marathon as a “means of repression” or to reduce inner restlessness - such people could actually be dependent.

This must be distinguished from people who prepare for a competition in a disciplined and focused manner. I know triathletes who isolate themselves socially in the "hot" training phase and who orient their entire life towards the sport. This is incomprehensible to outsiders. Nevertheless, these athletes are not addicted to sports: As soon as the competition is over, they behave very well and sometimes let their legs dangle.

How sports addiction arises. has not yet been fully clarified despite numerous theories. According to the "endorphin theory", during endurance sports, for example in a marathon, the body releases opioids that make the runner feel happy, the so-called "runner's high".

A more recent theory is "transient hyperfrontality": According to this, the brain shuts down the activity of the prefrontal cortex during exercise, our "analysis and brooding area", in order to concentrate on the automatically running programs that control the extremely complex running process. This fits together with the flow states that runners sometimes experience, with their descriptions of the loss of time and space perception, the blurring of the boundaries between self and environment. Personally, I think this theory is very conclusive - but it is completely unclear whether this has anything to do with the development of sports addiction.

Of course, the fact that exercise can be addictive doesn't mean that physical activity should be avoided. I myself have run over 50 marathons, participated in triathlons, in 1988 I was at the Ironman in Hawaii and I can confirm that sport is above all healthy - for body and mind.

Recorded by Claudia Christine Wolf