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  • Colleen Broersma and Jessica Cline

Exercise: panacea or addiction, virtue or vice?

Exercising regularly can contribute to your happiness. Most regular exercisers have experienced an “endorphin high”-- that increase in stamina, that reduction in pain and that over all feeling of being able to accomplish most anything in any given moment (leap tall buildings in a single bound).

Researchers have established a link between exercise and happiness. It is known that exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins and antibodies ---both tend to lead to feelings of happiness. Regular exercise also activates the brain's pleasure circuit. And so, like nicotine, caffeine, food or gambling, it can become a substrate for addiction. So when does exercise become a virtue vs. a vice? And when does it cross the line from healthy to unhealthy? From trained to overtrained?

Too Much of a Good Thing

It is well known that exercise alters mood states and is considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and reducing stress. Studies also show that it is very effective for reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. However, it is also well documented that symptoms such as concentration and memory problems and cognitive complaints are common in individuals experiencing overtraining syndrome. When questioned, athletes were found to consistently report elevations in negative moods (tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion) and decreases in the positive mood of vigor during periods of rigorous training. More recently assessments indicate that mood state exhibits a predictable dose–response relationship with training; as training increases - so do negative mood states and feelings of vigor decrease.

Now you may be saying “I’m not an athlete - so I can’t be overtrained”! Well, Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) reflects the body’s attempts to cope with both physiological and other stressors. In fact several studies have revealed that OTS represents the sum of multiple life stressors, such as physical training, sleep loss, exposure to environmental stresses (e.g., exposure to heat, high humidity, cold, and high altitude), occupational pressures, change of residence, and interpersonal difficulties. Sound like your average nine to fiver who just wants to ride their bike, or run a 5k? Well it turns out that managing “life”, “work” and “training” can push any recreational exerciser into overreaching and /or overtraining.

Don’t Worry – Be Happy!

30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 3-5 days a week seems to be the most effective dose for increasing happiness, promoting health and well-being and minimizing the chance of overtraining. If you are training more than that, be on the alert for Overtraining Syndrome – more on that in future blogs.


CC, Grant, DCJ van Rensburg, R Collins, PS Wood, PJ Du Toit. “The Profile of Mood State (POMS) questionnaire as an indicator of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) in endurance athletes.” African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation and Dance, vol.18, no 1 (2012).

James A. Blumenthal et al. “Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients With Major Depression.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol.159, no 19 (1999).

Meeusen R, Duclos M, Foster C, Fry A, Gleeson M, Nieman D, Raglin J, Rietjens G, Steinacker J, Urhausen A. “Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine.” European College of Sport Science, American College of Sports Medicine, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise [2013, 45(1):186-205]

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