TOOLBOX: We know very well that exercise and an active lifestyle provides huge benefits to our overall health. But even something as positive as exercise can become addictive and take over our lives for the worse. What are the risk and risk factors for exercise addiction in recreational cyclists?
Peter Van Petegem was addicted to the Spring classics
Exercise is Good
There is no question that exercise brings us many physical and mental benefits. Studies abound with the overwhelming consensus that regular and moderate physical activity significantly improves overall health. This includes both reducing the risk of mortality (death) along with morbidity (debilitating diseases or illnesses). Two of the main leading causes of death – heart disease and cancer – are greatly decreased in those with a history of moderate exercise.
Overall, an active lifestyle also tends to prolong a healthy lifespan and quality of life, extending the number of years in which we are free from significant health issues at the end of life along with compressing the amount of time of greatly decreased health capacity prior to death.
For both mental functioning and mental health, exercise is also a huge positive. In general cognitive function is maintained for a longer period of the lifespan and regular exercisers. The support network and social interaction on a group ride or within a cycling club is also an important component of overall strong mental health.
Too much can take its toll
The Downsides of Exercise
While overwhelmingly positive, as with anything else, moderation is key and more is not always necessarily better. Beyond the risk of physical overtraining and burnout along with overuse injuries, an equally important consideration is the mental aspects of exercise addiction.
Exercise addiction can be described as “a morbid pattern of behaviour in which the habitually exercising individual loses control over his or her exercise habits and acts compulsively, exhibits dependence and experiences negative consequences to health as well as in his or her social and professional life.” (Szabo et al. 2015)
While researching to this field is relatively new and emerging, and beset by several methodological issues such as the consistent terminology, the concept of exercise addiction is becoming recognized as falling into the general overall umbrella of behavioural addictions.
Cycling, along with other endurance sports, is a prime candidate for exercise addiction because of its solitary nature, emphasis on high volumes of training, and also a tendency towards perfectionism and comparison to others.
Mayloas-Pi et al. 2017
In a recent issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, a Spanish research group set out to survey the prevalence of exercise addiction and amateur cyclists, along with comparing different characteristics across the two groups to get a handle on physical and mental factors that may contribute or result from exercise addiction (Mayolas-Pi et al. 2017).
• Invitation to participate was sent out to 3,426 cycling clubs within the Spanish Cycling Federation, capturing 62,856 male and 2,483 female amateur cyclists officially registered in Spain. Ultimately 751 males and 108 females participated.
• As a control group, 307 males and 411 females classified as inactive were recruited.
• Risk of Exercise Addiction (REA) was assessed using a self-administered questionnaire, the Spanish version of the Exercise Addiction Index (EAI). This involved six questions rated from 0 to 5.
• Additional questions included ones on social demographic status, training and cycling history, and different questions on physical and mental health status.
• The cycling group was classified into two groups based on their response to the EAI (high = 24-30; low = 0-23).
Dissection Exercise Addiction
Here are some of the main findings from this survey:
• Of the 859 cyclists, 17% (125 cyclists) were classified as high REA, with an average score of 25.9/30. The low RVA group averaged 17.9/30 on the EAI questionnaire.
• While the percentage of males and females with high REA were similar, males averaged an overall higher EAI of 19.2 compared to females at 18.3.
• REA in the cyclists did not demonstrate any effective age, training, competition distance or performance, or social demographic status.
• No differences were observed in the REA and low REA groups in physical quality of life and cardio metabolic risks. However, mental quality of life indices was worse in the REA group. This included lower quality of sleep and higher anxiety.
• Both the REA and low REA groups had better physical and mental quality-of-life indices compared to the control group.
The 17% prevalence of REA in this study seemed to match previous prevalence findings among ultramarathoners and triathletes, and also seems to be higher than what has been found among the general exercising population.
Interestingly, this study found that training volume was not a predictor for REA. In contrast, half Ironman triathletes reported higher EAI values than Olympic and Sprint distance triathletes. One explanation for this discrepancy may be the overall training load across different studies such that, above a certain training volume, the magnitude of risk does not increase further.
It is also interesting that this study did not find any differences across genders in REA prevalence or risk factors, despite the likely differences in both how different genders are motivated to exercise and also how society perceives exercise across genders.
It could be said that Adam Hansen is addicted to the Grand Tours – Started in 28, finished 25 and rode 20 in a row
This paper is an interesting first exploration of exercise addiction in cyclists. It appears that cycling is similar to other endurance sports and having a higher REA than among the general exercising population, but the risk factors remain elusive. From the current data, the effects of exercise addiction appears to be more on mental health than on physical health.
Overall, it appears that moderation and a healthy perspective of how cycling fits into your life is an important part of cyclist’s life. As with any other addiction, exercise addiction can be hard to diagnose and recognize especially in yourself. One interesting angle to pursue in further research that seems to be missing in this survey is the motivation for these cyclists, along with the support network they may or may not have in their pursuit of cycling.
Have fun and ride fast!
Mayolas-Pi C, Simón-Grima J, Peñarrubia-Lozano C, et al (2017) Exercise addiction risk and health in male and female amateur endurance cyclists. J Behav Addict 6:74–83. doi: 10.1556/2006.6.2017.018
Szabo A, Griffiths MD, de La Vega Marcos R, et al (2015) Methodological and Conceptual Limitations in Exercise Addiction Research. Yale J Biol Med 88:303–308.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 90 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s new book “Cycling Science” with Dr. Mikel Zabala from the Movistar Pro Cycling Team has just hit the bookshelves this summer, following up Cutting-Edge Cycling written with Hunter Allen.
Stephen can be reached for comments at [email protected] .