Certain behaviors are often socially accepted and even encouraged when they’re considered productive, regardless of potential health risks. This can include behaviors like exercising, dieting, and working. Frequent exercise is generally seen as a sign of a healthy lifestyle, but what happens if exercise habits become extreme to the point of addiction? It’s difficult to draw the line between a healthy commitment to fitness versus an excessive and potentially harmful behavior.
A research team in the department of psychology at the University of Southern Denmark wanted to know whether the amount of support from family and friends changes in the case of extreme exercise, or if they continue encouragement as usual. They also wanted to know if scientists should change the way they measure addiction when the addictive behavior is considered positive.
To better understand this, the researchers conducted a study involving over 500 fitness center members. The members filled out an anonymous survey to determine their risk of exercise addiction. This survey—called the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI)—takes into account several factors based on behavioral addictions. This includes factors like how much the person prioritizes exercise, how much support for exercise they receive from the people in their life, and if exercise causes conflicts in their relationships with others. Participants answered the questions on a 5-point scale, from “totally disagree” (1) to “totally agree” (5). They also answered whether they continue exercise during illness/injury and whether they suffer from an eating disorder.
In order to analyze the results, researchers separated the data into a group of people with high risk for exercise addiction versus a group with low risk. High risk exercisers were more likely to exercise 8 hours or more per week, continue exercise during illness/injury, and were more likely to have an eating disorder. Meanwhile, low risk exercisers showed less of these behaviors. High risk participants also had higher scores when asked if they believed they had an exercise addiction.
After data analysis, it seemed one factor stayed the same between the two groups: the level of support from friends and families. The researchers found no major difference in support for high risk and low risk exercisers, with the exception of people with eating disorders. Those with eating disorders were less likely to receive support for exercise activities. This doesn’t mean exercise addiction in itself was viewed as negative, only that it is seen as negative when paired with eating disorders.
Even when the data was analyzed without the eating disorder cases, the high risk exercisers received a similar amount of social support as the low risk exercisers. These results suggest that addictive exercise behavior is generally socially accepted and encouraged, possibly to the point of extremes that result in injury and overload.
However, because of these results, researchers also proposed that the exercise addiction inventory may not be entirely reliable for measuring exercise addiction risk. For example, a possible symptom of exercise addiction used in the survey is “conflicts with family and friends”. “Conflicts with family and friends” is used as a diagnostic tool in cases like substance abuse or gambling, but the researchers questioned whether this criteria still applies when the addictive behavior (exercise) is seen as positive and healthy. After all, the survey might wrongly suggest someone doesn’t have an addictive behavior just because they don’t have conflicts with family or friends. But of course, these conflicts may not happen if the behavior is socially accepted like exercise. So this particular question in the survey doesn’t seem reliable for cases like this, although the overall survey is a good start. They proposed that the survey should ask about negative health consequences instead, like in the Bergen Workaholic Scale, which aims to test whether a person has a work addiction.
The researchers suggest further studies should be done with more reliable tools to measure people’s experiences. This is because some questions in the survey weren’t standardized to make the answers consistently valid. They also feel the data could have been influenced by the way they gathered the answers, such as participants who were close at hand during one specific point in time. They suggest a more careful approach to eliminate possible bias. Other factors that affect support of exercise—not just eating disorders—should also be explored, like gender, type of exercise, and use of supplements or steroids. With more careful and thought-out studies, exercise addiction may be taken more seriously as a potentially harmful behavior.