The Scary Truth About “Fitspo” and the Disorder No One Talks About

Jasmine Tookes Holding Exercise ball
Victoria's Secret

Fifty-two percent of triathletes, 25% of runners, and 3% of regular gymgoers have developed a fitness habit that's unhealthy. For thousands of people, getting in a sweat session is no longer a feel-good activity, but rather a compulsion. Exercise addiction is real, and it's on the rise.

What Is Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction may sound like a sensationalized term your dramatic friend would use to describe her love for working out. Unlike her chocolate or shoe vice, however, exercise addiction can have real psychological and physical consequences. Dr. Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D. and author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction ($38), likens it to drug and alcohol addiction. "Like substances 'hijack' the brains of individuals hooked on alcohol or drugs, the compulsion to exercise can hijack the exercise addict's emotional reward centers," Dr. Hausenblas says. "He or she will need more and more of a particular routine or exercise to get a 'fix.' He or she will feel unable to avoid giving into cravings for more exertion, compulsions to engage in physical behaviors his or her body has grown accustomed to—in large part, for fear of withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, irritability, fatigue, depression, and occasionally headaches and other pain sensations)."

How Does It Start?

So how does a healthy habit, exercise, turn into an uncontrollable addiction? It all starts on a positive note, with a good exercise program you enjoy. But eventually, you stop being satisfied with the routine that used to make you feel great. "Exercise addiction begins when a person begins needing more and more of their initial exercise routine to feel satisfied," Dr. Hausenblas says. "This is, essentially, tolerance—which is the hallmark of all disorders, especially substance abuse. In addition to tolerance, the problem grows more severe when the addict’s exercise regimen begins to feel out of control—when they start slipping away from activities they used to enjoy or they begin to feel like they cannot participate in them because of their routine." Making gym time a priority in your schedule is one thing. But when gym time becomes your schedule and you start canceling drinks with friends and skipping family dinners in order to get another sweat session in, then there could be an issue.

Secondary Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is not an eating disorder, though Dr. Hausenblas says many people suffering from eating disorders fit the criteria for exercise addiction. When exercising becomes a tool for someone with disordered eating habits to control their caloric intake, it's called secondary exercise addiction or, as it is commonly referred to, exercise bulimia. "For the secondary exercise addict, working out is often seen as an alternative form of 'purging' unwanted calories—in addition to exerting extreme control over one's body size, shape, weight, and overall appearance," Dr. Hausenblas says. "Primary exercise addicts, by contrast, are hooked on the physical activity itself—be that cardio, weightlifting, yoga, Pilates, or some other type of exercise. Rather than exercising to control body size, shape, or weight, the primary exercise addict's main goal when excessively exerting themselves is to pursue the feelings and sensations derived during and after the actual physical experience." Primary exercise addicts are seeking that runner's high.

The "Fitspiration" Factor

With the growing number of exercise addicts today, research has shifted to look at what role social media is playing in all this. And the research singles out everyone's favorite hashtag: #fitspo. "Thinspiration and fitspiration refer to content (images, videos, slogans, etc.) intended to motivate people to exercise," Dr. Hausenblas explains. "Unfortunately, they often fail to do this—research shows they can actually make people less likely to get to the gym, as they tend to promote unhealthy and unappealing approaches to fitness (i.e., pictures of fitter- and thinner-than-average individuals tagged with phrases like 'suffer the burn or suffer the pain of regret' and 'suck it up now or suck it in later'; other studies indicate thinspiration and fitspiration can promote disordered eating habits, compulsive exercise behavior, and damage self-esteem and body image)." Not everyone who peruses #fitspo on Instagram has or will develop an exercise addiction, but when addicts do view this type of content, it plays into their distorted conceptions about and approach to exercise. 

Health and Fitness Culture

As a whole, our culture doesn't have the most balanced attitude about health and fitness. Dr. Hausenblas says our misguided approach—that tendency to work in the extremes—is what will continue exercise addiction. "It almost encourages—if not, for exercise addicts, fuels—fitness-inclined individuals to approach exercise with all-or-nothing attitudes, consider exercise as a source of suffering rather than pleasure and health, and also focus too heavily on their appearance (using how they look as a marker for progress rather than how they feel or what they can do)," she says.

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