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A paradox in sport culture

Can exercise cause as serious an addiction as drugs?

by Istvan Miskolczy

image courtesy of pixabay.com via Pexels

Generally, people use the term ‘addictive’ for describing their strong bonding towards harmful things such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and so on. However, not just ‘bad things’ can cause addiction, as playing sport is also among those enjoyable and helpful activities, which – despite their healthiness – can be addictive. ‘Exercise addiction’ is a frequently used term between psychologists. They use it for a person who is in a strong, unhealthy relationship with sport activities or physical exercises. Although harm caused by the additivity of sport and the effects of drugs is incomparable, we can still identify some similarities between addiction to both drugs and sport.

The scheme behind them is the same, and it is also the answer for the popular question: why do we get addicted? People could be dependent to things because of the lack of achievement of different aims or things, the exaggerated desire they feel towards something, and the possible consequences of a trauma in their lives, or their hopelessness. This is especially true for sport as well. Scarcity of self-confidence, body image disorder, and excessive external pressure can all result in exercise addiction.

These examples are similar in the biological sense too. Doing exercise releases the exact same chemicals as taking drugs. The endorphins and dopamine in our brains are responsible for our well-being, happiness, and pleasure. Increasing the amount of these chemicals in our body by doing exercises or drugs is the biological reason for getting addicted. In general, humans want to pursue happiness, and these molecules are helping in this.

‘Addiction’ itself is ergo equally serious in both cases. However, the consequences certainly are extremely different. The frequent use of drugs can result in the complete psychical and mental decline of the human body. In contrast, the exercise addiction can cause ‘only’ reduction in other activities, anxiety after a period without doing sports, or physical injuries, which could be the result of not leaving enough time for recovering or treating already existing injuries, due to the necessity and inner constraint for doing exercises, because those who are addicted to sports usually feel that they must go for a run or do some exercises. We can say that the question is a paradox indeed. How can we be addicted to something which is fundamentally healthy, beneficial and useful? Moreover, the boundary between a sportsman who is addictive and another who is not is really narrow. What makes a person exercise addictive? How can we define sports addiction? It is still under debate between scientists and psychologists. Although both the biological and physical method of becoming addicted to sports or drugs is more or less the same, the consequences are completely different, and a drug addict’s life and health is in higher danger than a sports addict’s. However, a lot of sports players are competing, racing, and pushing their limits to the maximum, until an injury occurs (for instance Usain Bolt in the London World Championships in 2017), but that is definitely not the same case as drugs.

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