Exercise Addiction Isn’t Tied to Weekly Mileage

IN THE POPULAR view, people who run daily, and who run relatively high mileage, are far more often considered “addicted to running” than less frequent, lower-mileage runners. That view–that training volume and exercise addiction are directly related–is false, suggests research published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

“Exercise addiction” means one thing to the general population and something else to sports psychologists. What many runners call exercise addiction usually boils down to the sentiment, “I feel better on days when I run, and worse when something prevents me from running.”

Sports psychologist have a more nuanced definition. They describe exercise addiction as losing control over one’s exercise behavior, such that it becomes an obligation and leads to problems, such as conflict with others and the activity becoming the most important thing in one’s life, seen in other types of addiction.A six-factor inventory for exercise addiction was published by British researchers in 2004, and has become the standard screening tool. Its six symptoms, which are given varying weights in using the assessment tool, are:

  1. Exercise is the most important thing in my life.
  2. Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of exercise I do.
  3. I use exercise as a way of changing my mood.
  4. Over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.
  5. If I have to miss an exercise session I feel moody and irritable.
  6. If I cut down the amount of exercise I do, and then start again, I always end up exercising as often as I did before.

For the study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, Spanish researchers used the inventory to assess the exercise addiction of team and individual college athletes, as well as 95 ultramarathoners. Two findings concerning the ultramarathoners may refute the equation of more running and exercise addiction.

First, on the basis of their answers to the inventory, 17 percent of the ultramarathoners were said to be at risk for exercise addiction. Over the years, estimates for the prevalence of exercise addiction in runners have ranged from 3 percent to 22 percent. For ultramarathoners to fall within that (admittedly imperfect) range suggests they’re not outliers by virtue of their event focus.

Second, and more telling, the researchers found that greater training volume wasn’t associated with greater risk of exercise addiction in the ultramarathoners. In fact, those who reported averaging less than six hours per week of running scored higher on the inventory than those who said they ran more than six hours per week.

By the way, if you’ve read the inventory above and now consider yourself an addict, consider these words from the Spanish researchers:

“It is important to stress that risk for [exercise addiction] is not a diagnosis and devotion to athletics may inflate the subjective ratings … through infiltration of concepts linked to commitment.”

For example, if it’s true that “over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day,” that might well be a rational choice as you prepare for your first marathon. As with other types of addiction, the worrisome trend is feeling powerless to change patterns that you know are harmful to much of the rest of your life.


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