Latest developments in causes and treatments



A Fresh Look at Sports Addiction

The medical profession tends to look favorably upon exercise as an activity conducive to good health. Exercise is the number one way of relieving stress and is recommended for displacing a build-up of energy resulting from stressful situations. Exercising to blow off stress is generally more healthful than binge eating, alcoholism or drug addiction.

But what happens when exercise gets out of control, when it becomes compulsive and damaging to one’s own health? It happens all the time. It’s called sports addiction, and while it is not recognized as a mental health disorder, it is something doctors have been treating for decades.

The International Review for the Sociology of Sport recently published a survey of 337  peer-reviewed articles on sports addiction. The articles cover a 38-year span from 1979 – 2017. The findings are fascinating.

  • Half of the papers (n=163)  regard sports addiction as primarily a psychological condition similar to anxiety.
  • The other half (n=148) regard sports addiction as a physical addiction similar to substance use disorders.
  • The remainder see it as a combination of factors.
  • About 8% of the papers (n=28) are skeptical of sports addiction as being “a real thing.”

Regarding those papers examining sports addiction using an addiction model, the authors state:

We found that within the addiction model, the construct is shaped by two other main assumptions. First, it is explained through neurobiological features (n = 29) or compared to drug addiction (n = 22) (which often highlight the physiological mechanisms of addiction)… Second, and this happens mostly after 2010, sport addiction is discussed in relation to other types of behavioral addictions (n = 20).

The dominant sports addiction connection with behavioral disorders is with eating disorders. “Nearly half of the studies (n = 186) mention the link between sport addiction and eating disorders.” Yet only 29 studies conclude that you can’t have sports addiction without an eating disorder. Other disorders associated with sports addiction include body dysmorphia and muscle dysmorphia.

Sports addiction tends to map to some very risky activities. Running addiction is covered in 35 papers, more than any other sport, with weightlifting (n=20) and bodybuilding (n=15) as prevalent. But marathons/triathlons (n=16) and other “high risk sports” (n=6) indicate there’s an attraction to adrenaline at play.

Sports addiction has been recognized at least since 1979 with the publication of “Negative Addiction in Runners” by William P. Morgan in The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Sports addiction articles in peer-reviewed journals peaked in 2011 and steadily declined thereafter. There has been a huge surge in interest in the subject since the COVID-19 pandemic but this survey is based on papers through 2017.

AddictionNews will try to gather information on sports addiction since the COVID-19 pandemic and present it here, as we continue to examine the connections between all forms of addiction.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published December 5, 2023.


“When sport is taken to extremes: A sociohistorical analysis of sport addiction,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, June 2022.

“Negative Addiction in Runners,” The Physician and Sportsmedicine, February 1979.

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