If you have ever heard of exercise addiction, there is a good chance you have thought one of two things. You have either thought it was a made-up problem. Or, you have wished it was a problem you had. But, exercise addiction is a genuine medical problem that can cause serious health problems and impact a person’s quality of life.
People who have an exercise addition workout excessively, don’t take recovery periods, experience withdrawal symptoms and neglect other areas of their lives in favor of their fitness routines. It can impact your personal life, bone and muscle health and mental well-being. Just like with any other addiction, it starts in the brain. Some of the addiction can come from external factors like pressure about one’s appearance or behavior. Some can be from a person’s mental image of health and what they want to look like. But a lot of it comes from brain chemistry. Some people have a genetic leaning toward obsessive behavior that can develop into addictions to behaviors. We all have brain chemicals that reward us and make us feel good when our brain thinks we’ve done the “right thing.” For an addicted person, exercise can trigger the brain to release the chemicals, and they keep going back.
We would certainly never advocate for developing an addiction. They are harmful and unhealthy. But, you can train your brain to like exercise more by stimulating that chemical system.
Studies have repeatedly found that people who exercise regularly are less depressed and anxious. They also get more significant mood boosts after exercising, making them more likely to exercise again. No one had researched why that was until a new study from the Univ. of Turku.
Researchers used imaging to look at the mu-opioid receptors, or MORs, in the brain. MORs react to the body’s version of opiates — endogenous opioids. The study had people cycle as much as they could to test how fit they were. Then, on a different day, some people did an hour of moderate cycling while others did high-intensity interval training. The most regularly active people had the biggest response in MOR activity regardless of their workout.
“It is possible that some people are born with a more responsive MOR system, and it helps them to tolerate and like exercise, and that’s why it’s easy for them to engage in higher levels of exercise,” said Tiina Saanijoki, the study’s lead author. “Or it can be the other way round, so a better-functioning MOR system has developed through regular exercise habits.”
Studies in rats have found that after five to eight weeks of increased exercise, the animals have higher amounts of endogenous opioids in their brains. While animal studies don’t correlate one-to-one with humans, it does suggest that “pushing through it” and sticking to a workout schedule may cause brain changes that make you enjoy working out.
The researchers warn that the “runner’s high” we’ve all heard of is rare. It’s experienced by so few people it’s not worth pursuing or hoping for. But, if you start working out regularly and work at it, you might find that it doesn’t just become easier but turns into something you look forward to and enjoy!