Do sportspeople have an addictive personality?

By Caroline Heaney

The big story of the men’s marathon at the Commonwealth Games wasn’t that of the winner, Michael Shelley, but that of 10th place finisher Steve Way whose turnaround from an overweight, 20-a day-smoker to an international athlete sparked media interest. In a TV interview Steve’s wife commented that he had an ‘addictive personality’ which instead of channelling into smoking he now channels into running. It is certainly true that the time and commitment that top level athletes dedicate to their sport is huge, but is it really an addiction?

What is exercise addiction?
Addiction to exercise is a recognised phenomenon which can be defined as a psychological and/or physiological dependence on regular exercise that is characterised by withdrawal symptoms (e.g. anxiety, muscle twitching, irritability) when the individual is unable to exercise. Speak to any athlete who trains regularly and I bet they will confess to experiencing withdrawal-type symptoms when they are unable to train (e.g. due to an injury), so perhaps sportspeople are addicted to exercise. The term ‘addiction’ has negative connotations, but is it really a bad thing for an athlete to feel so committed to their sport that they miss it when they can’t participate? Surely to excel in sport you need to demonstrate that level of attachment and committment. This leads to the question of whether exercise addiction is a good thing or a bad thing.

Positive and negative addiction
To acknowledge the possibility that an exercise addiction can be a good thing researchers distinguish between positive and negative exercise addiction. The key difference between these two types of additiction is control. In a negative exercise addiction the exercise controls the individual, whereas with a positive exercise addiction the individual controls the exercise. Negative exercise addiction is often associated with other conditions such as eating disorders and is therefore thought of as an unhealthy addiction. In contrast positive exercise addiction is effectively a healthy addiction. Given the negative connatations attached to the term addiction, some believe that a positive exercise addiction should be thought of as a committment rather than an addiction.

Top level athletes certainly appear to demonstate qualities that are indicative of exercise addiction, but this for the most part appears to be a healthy addiction. There are obviously exceptions to this, for example where an athlete has an eating disorder, but generally it can be concluded that there is a strong argument to suggest that top level athletes have a positive addiction to exercise – one that is both healthy and necessary to be successful.

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