Can exercise addiction be positive?

I am often asked by the media “What is the difference between healthy excessive enthusiasms and addiction?” My stock answer is always that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life but that addiction takes away from it. This suggests that addictions are purely negative, yet it could be argued that for some people there are many benefits of engaging in their addiction of choice. If we were to write a list of possible benefits of addiction, it may include some of the following:

• Reliable changes of mood and subjective experience (e.g., enhances subjective well-being through excitement and arousal, and/or provides feelings of being able to relax or escape)

• Positive experience of pleasure, excitement, relaxation

• Disinhibition of behavior aiding sociability (e.g., initiating sexual behavior)

• Coping strategy for all vulnerabilities (e.g., insults, injuries, social anxiety, fear, tension, etc.)

• Simplifier of decisions as all behavior is related to one activity

• Maintainer of emotional distance (i.e., prevents people from getting close to the addict)

• Strategy for threatening, rebelling, revenging, etc

• Source of identity and/or meaning of life (e.g., a person’s social circle may consist entirely of other addicted individuals who condone and reinforce the addictive behavior)

This list suggests that for the addict there are some genuine benefits, at least from their own perception. The idea that there are ‘positive addictions’ is not new and was first forwarded by Bill Glasser in his 1976 book Positive Addictions (Harper & Row, New York). Glasser argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. According to Glasser, positive addictions must be new rewarding activities such as exercise and relaxation that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

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However, one of my great mentors, psychologist Iain Brown (now retired from Glasgow University in Scotland) suggested it might be better to call some activities “mixed blessing addictions”, since even positive addictions such as exercise addiction (as suggested by Glasser) might have some negative consequences. For me, one of the defining features of addiction is that the short-term-benefits (particularly like those the list above) are always outnumbered by the long-term downsides (i.e., over time, the long-term disadvantages start to outweigh the short-term disadvantages).

For me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are ‘addictions’ at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions. In short, for an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, the behavior must be:

• Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day

• Easy, so no mental effort is required

• Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people

• Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)

• Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result

• Involve no self-criticism.

To me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view I that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run.

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