FAU study: endurance sports can be addictive

Addiction to physical activity comes with loss of control, massive health problems and social difficulties

They engage in sports almost compulsively and feel a daily need for physical exertion: sport addicts barely know any limit. They don’t only risk losing control of themselves, but they also put their health on the line. Regardless of age or sex: those who take up endurance sports such as triathlon, running or cycling run the risk of becoming addicted to sport. Sport scientists at FAU and at the University of Halle-Wittenberg have shown this in a study surveying 1089 athletes.

‘As many as 4.5 percent of the athletes surveyed were in danger of developing a sport addiction,” says one of the authors of the study, Erlangen sport psychologist Dr. Heiko Ziemainz from the Institute of Sport Science and Sport at FAU. Younger athletes, triathletes and those who engage in physical activity especially often are particularly at risk. The highest degree of risk, however, was found in athletes who have been training for years. Heiko Ziemainz explains the goal that those affected by sport addiction pursue: ‘They want to maintain a positive mood.’

Unlike all previous scientific studies of sport addiction, the authors of the Erlangen study differentiate between sport addiction and risk of sport addiction. Sport addicts ignore physical warning signs and keep running despite terrible pain. ‘These people are in urgent need of therapy,’ says Heiko Ziemainz. Further indicators of sport addiction are the social difficulties endurance athletes develop: ‘They will, for instance, tolerate losing their marriage or losing sight of their social environment in the pursuit of ever increasing athletic activity.’ Endurance sport becomes the central theme in an addict’s life: ‘The behaviour controls the person, not vice versa.’ Similar to smokers and alcoholics, they suffer withdrawal symptoms. They develop a depressed or restless mood and report suffering from insomnia.

Athletes classed as at risk of developing sport addiction are different. ‘They have not lost control yet and still pay attention to physical symptoms,’ explains Ziemainz. The line between a normal, ambitious athlete and an at-risk person is difficult to draw – the researchers used a point system in their study. The authors concentrated on an examination of what is known as primary sport addiction/risk of sport addiction and its causes.

There is also secondary sport addiction/risk of sport addiction. It often develops in combination with eating disorders. Such athletes want to control or change their figure or weight. Sport addiction or risk of sport addiction are often fostered by feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s figure despite having a normal BMI, as is often the case in young women.

‘The disease pattern of sport addiction/risk of sport addiction is not found in diagnostics reference books in clinical psychology,’ Heiko Ziemainz points out. This does not mean that the danger should be underestimated, though. ‘Risk of sport addiction seems to be connected with certain personality traits.’ Some of the reasons he lists for excessive athletic activity are bad self-esteem, compulsivity and a tendency towards perfectionism.

While sport addicts must be treated with therapy, those merely at risk of sport addiction could be sensitised regarding the risk, possibly combined with certain behavioural changes such as reducing the amount of exercise.

Further information:

Dr. Heiko Ziemainz
+49 (0)9131 85 25003


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