Mêdraœ and Bidziñska (2004) found that recreational males, former athletes and people who participate in aerobic exercise or sports (e.g. running, swimming, cycling) regularly engage in exercise addictive behaviours. But, the difference between commitment and addiction to exercise has been disputed.
Commitment and addiction can be differentiated through the intellectual analyse of rewards and rationales for exercise (Sachs, 1981). Sachs defined committed exercisers as driven by extrinsic rewards, have a important but not essential view and possess a low possibility of suffering withdrawal symptoms. In contrast, exercise addicts are defined as being driven by unrealistic intrinsic rewards, view exercise as central to their life and are highly likely to suffer from withdrawal symptoms.
In a study looking into the relationship between addiction and commitment to running, Szabo, Frenkl and Caputo (1997) found no such correlation and concluded that they are two independent concepts. However, there was a positive reciprocal relationship between addiction to exercise and the frequency, distance and the duration of training associated with negative addiction (Glasser, 1976). With this, Kjelsas, Augestad and Gotestam (2003) used Exercise Dependence Questionnaire (EDQ) to find a relationship between number of hours dedicated to sport and risk of addiction in females. For exercise addicts, the increased quantity of exercise heightens the perceived advantages of exercise thus causing the person to continually increase exercise tolerance (Hausenblas & Symons Downs, 2001).
The Obligatory Exercise Questionnaire (OEQ) is a well established standardised questionnaire which looks at secondary dependence (Veale, 1995) and the relationship between exercise behaviour, eating disturbance, and body image. Pasman and Thompson (1988) found that there is are significantly more eating disturbances in runners with females showing more eating psycho-pathology with a high need for perfection and control over their bodies.
Hausenblas and Symons Downs developed the Exercise Dependence Scale (EDS) which identifies individuals at risk, non dependent symptomatic, and non dependent asymptomatic through exercise withdrawal symptoms in athletes. This has been criticised for a limited concept of addiction and not differentiating primary and secondary exercise dependence.
The short form of the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI), similarly to the EDS, looks to distinguish between individuals at risk, moderate symptoms and no symptoms of exercise addiction based on Griffiths’ (1997) six components of addiction. The inventory addresses the athletes views on exercise behaviour such as the perceived importance, motivation and experience of benefits to exercise. Griffiths examined an amateur Jiu-Jitsu athlete with relatively stable background who suffered from exercise addiction using the six components. For the athlete, the sport slowly dominated her life and believed exercise helped her concentrate on other activities. She felt agitated when unable to exercise, her education and relationships began to deteriorate and was unable to reduce the amount of the exercise behaviour exhibited.
The first practical challenge exercise addiction presents is how to identify athletes that participate in addictive behaviours away from training and competition. To monitor athletes’ exercise habits, inventories such as the EDQ, OEQ, EDS, and EAI can be implemented regularly to track the frequency, duration, salience and feelings towards exercise.
Secondly, when an athlete is identified as having a possible exercise addiction, addressing the athlete can be a sensitive issue. For a psychologist, confidentiality and empathy is key to gaining trust from the athlete to confront their addiction. This can be difficult in younger athletes due as the parents have to be notified and educated on their excessive exercise behaviours.
Generally, regular exercisers do not voluntarily decrease or cease exercise and with injury common in sport, observing others experiencing withdrawals due to the removal of exercise can lead to the reinforcement to continue the exercise behaviour. Support staff can be also have a huge impact on the reinforcement of addictive behaviours, especially in sports like weightlifting, boxing and running. Addiction can be promoted by language that portrays the athlete as committed or a role model. To combat such reinforcement, support staff (i.e. coaches, physiotherapist) and athletes can be educated through psychotherapy on the cues to spotting exercise addiction and emphasis withdrawals are outweighed with the benefits and importance of rest and recovery.
In sports where weight is valued (i.e. boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics), athletes have a much higher possibility of having or developing secondary exercise dependence which is connected by an eating disorder. Eating disorders can be very secretive and therefore hard to identify. When recognised, it would therefore be advised to seek professional help from a clinical psychologist, but this could disturb the psychologist-athlete relationship.