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July 5, 2014
by Christie Hunter

How Much Is Too Much? Implications of Excessive Exercise and Eating Addiction on Healthy Living

July 5, 2014 04:55 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

Healthy Living and Mental Health

According to Walsh (2011)1, mental health professionals have ‘significantly underestimated’ the correlation between lifestyle choices and mental treatments, cognitive function, and social wellbeing.  In particular, this study reveals how positive changes in dietary and physical exercise habits can contribute to the treatment of well known psychological conditions like depression and psychosis.



 Exercise can reduce the risk of:

·       Depression

·       Age-related cognitive decline

·       Alzheimer’s disease

·       Parkinson’s disease

·       Symptoms of schizophrenia

Other therapeutic benefits of exercise include treatment of anxiety and eating addiction (see below). In a similar vein, a pescovegetarian diet can prevent or treat age-related psycholopathologies and also enhance cognitive performance in children. When including fish in your otherwise predominate fruit and vegetable diet, prefer cold deep-seawater fish while avoiding species with high mercury levels.  

The same effects have been attributed to food supplements, with research being focused on fish oil, folic acid, S-adenosyl-methionine, and Vitamin D.

It is clear that physical exercise and a healthy diet are essential for our mental health, and imbalance in any of these two areas can give birth to a variety of psychological conditions.

Eating Addiction

Eating disorders, illnesses that cause you to eat too little or in excess, are well established. According to NIMH (2011)2, major eating disorders include:

Anorexia nervosa

This is characterized by extremely restrictive eating, emaciation, fear of gaining weight, and self-esteem issues.

Bulimia nervosa

This condition is characterized by frequent and recurring episodes of uncontrollable consumption of unusually large amounts of food. This eating cycle repeats itself several times a week, or even multiple times during a single day. People who experience bulimia nervosa also have body image issues, and their eating habits are often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame.

Most people are familiar with the concept of binge-eating, but this condition is categorized in eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). People who binge-eat are usually overweight and obese. Overtime, their eating habits result in feelings of guilt, shame, and distress, and they enter a downward spiral of more binge-eating to repress these emotions.  

According to Adam & Epel (2007)3, several studies show that these eating disorders have been linked with stress. Stress chronically stimulates the adrenal, pituitary, and hypothalamic glands, the result of which is the excess glucocorticoid exposure, and this can lead to obesity. Adam & Epel’s Reward Based Stress Eating model suggests that with the increased production of cortisol in stressful situations, the mind triggers a hunger that is more than our caloric need.

But apart from stress and known eating disorders, addiction to food has also been a topic of major studies. The Rudd Report (2007)4 states that these studies have revealed that there are striking similarities in use and withdrawal patterns of sugar and of classic drugs of abuse. Addiction to food can also be triggered as people move away from other substances like tobacco and alcohol, and there is a possibility that food and classic addictive substances compete for the same brain pathways. Indeed, many food additives can affect the brain in ways similar to drug abuse.

Excessive Exercise

As noted above, exercise is essential for good mental health, but excessive exercise (exercise dependence) can actually lead to psychological complications. According to Weinstein & Weinstein (2013)5, further research needs to be done on the psychological factors that lead people to be obsessively driven to exercise, but existing studies indicate that exercise addiction includes:

·       An obsessive-compulsive dimension

·       Elements of behavioral addiction

·       Elements of a reward system, with exercise being a means to stress-reduction, social support, reduction of anxiety, and avoidance of withdrawal

These factors can lead people to engage in physically strenuous activities even when they are injured or not fully rested.


Once again, since proper diet and exercise are so essential, disorders pertaining to them should be dealt with on a timely basis by mental health professionals, nutritionists, and general medical practitioners.  

Addiction to Food

Focusing on the psychological aspects of treatment, eating disorders are usually treated with psychotherapy (individual, family, or group), and even with medications. However, when treating food addictions, doctors may also have to take care of substance abuse symptoms if a reciprocal relationship between food and alcohol/tobacco/drugs has been established. 

Addiction to Exercise

Assessment and treatment of exercise dependence should take into account the various stages of exercise addiction development, its co-morbidity with other psychiatric disorders (eating disorders, substance abuse, etc.).

Treatment approaches for exercise addiction are based on the cognitive-behavioral approach, but their effectiveness has still not been established.


1Roger Walsh (2011). Lifestyle and Mental Health. UCLA

2National Institute of Mental Health (2011). Eating Disorders

3Adam & Epel (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system.  UCLA

4Rudd Report (2007). Food & Addiction. Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Yale University

5Weinstein & Weinstein (2013). Exercise Addiction- Diagnosis, Bio-Psychological Mechanisms and Treatment Issues

About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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