Not only good: sport can become an addiction

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When sport becomes an addiction

People with a compulsive urge to do sports may suffer from sports addiction. This disorder classified as behavioral addiction is neither listed in ICD 10 nor in DSM-IV and is therefore not recognized as an independent diagnosis. That this phenomenon does exist, however, is undisputed. In some cases, besides sports addiction, there is also an eating disorder. To reduce body weight, those affected undergo intensive training with a view to the desired ideal figure.

There are several scientific approaches to explaining how sports addiction can develop. For some sufferers, the goal of exhaustion is to compensate for failures or to deal with failures in other areas.

In Germany, psychologists estimate that around three percent of the population is affected. "Based on a study that we carried out with the Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen, I would say that the frequency of illness among those who do intensive sports is between one and three percent," says Prof. Oliver Stoll from the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

It is not uncommon for those affected to experience a feeling of inner unrest when they do without their usual dose of sport. Even physical symptoms such as stomach pain, functional heart problems or back pain can develop.

"If someone feels such a compulsive urge to do sports that giving up their usual dose makes them mentally or even physically suffer, it is not normal," explains Jens Kleinert, professor of sports and health psychology at the German Sport University Cologne. "You can already speak of addictive behavior."

Almost every 20th athlete at risk of addiction In order to get an overview of the extent of sports addiction in the population, 1089 women and men who practice endurance sports such as running or cycling were asked about their training habits. Around every 20th of them showed tendencies that could indicate a sport addiction or a risk of sport addiction.

"Perhaps it is also due to the fact that they are very willing to talk about their excessive training: What is certain is that endurance athletes seem to have the highest risk of illness," explains Stoll.

A connection with the ideals of our world shaped by performance cannot be dismissed out of hand. Performance is very important and is generally rewarded positively. But also the ideal of beauty suggested by advertising leads more and more to a real cult of the body, to which more and more men are subject.

For example, strength athletes who build up more and more muscle mass, but also extreme athletes who get one kick at a time through the adrenaline release of the body, also belong to the risk group. With anorexics, a sports addiction usually arises from the quasi-compulsive striving for a perfect body in their eyes. "The focus is, for example, on further losing weight or compensating for seizures. That is why we speak of secondary dependency," explains Kleinert. This is diagnosed much more often than pure sports addiction, but the symptoms are almost identical.

When sport determines life Sports addicts can be recognized by the fact that sport is not only part of life, but also primarily determines it. The sports psychologist rof. Thomas Schack, Vice President of the International Society for Sports Psychology, says that he does not train because he likes it, but feels an uncontrollable urge to do it.

As with most addictions, the body demands increasing amounts of the intoxicating feeling of the hormones dopamine and adrenaline, which are released by sport and can also trigger withdrawal symptoms such as headache, stomachache, nervousness or depression. But the behavior that escalates in extreme sports can lead to serious physical damage to health. "In the long run, excessive exercise behavior can lead to the body no longer being able to regenerate itself and an overtraining effect that is accompanied by symptoms such as insomnia, headache or muscle problems," says Kleinert. The high physical strain leads to a long-term weakening of the immune system and premature wear of joints, bones and tendons.

Exercise Despite Injuries Another effect that has been observed is that sports addicts often continue to train with injuries. "I know of cases in which non-healed fractures or ligament tears were used for training, which can lead to permanent damage," warns Schack.

Problems can also develop on a psychosocial level. It is not uncommon for sports addicts to develop social isolation because they prefer sport to friends but also family. "Those affected are constantly under pressure and feel so driven by their urge to exercise that they can no longer really relax," says Stoll. "Some even get up in the middle of the night to exercise."

Traumas or a disturbed self-perception Experts recommend that you should critically question your own training behavior when you first show signs of addictive behavior.

"According to sports psychologists, evidence of sports addiction is:
- when endurance sports become the central purpose of life
- if physical symptoms such as nervousness and stomach pain occur, or feelings of guilt or depression occur when you do not exercise
- if the load has to be increased continuously
- when the urge to train is experienced as an inner compulsion
- when physical warning signals about overload are ignored
- if you continue to train in the event of injuries
- when social contacts are neglected or given up because of sport.

When the limit of passion for sport is exceeded, it is time to consult a therapist, "says Schack. The most common triggers include trauma or impaired self-awareness. (Fr)

Image: Tim Reckmann /

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