Working out: Are Olympic athletes addicted to exercise and/or work?

As someone who has spent over 25 years carrying out research into behavioural addiction, I have published a fair amount on exercise addiction over the years. One question I am often asked when the Olympics comes around is to what extent athletes are addicted to exercise. One of the problems answering this question is that in spite of the widespread usage of the term ‘exercise addiction’ there are many different terminologies that describe excessive exercise syndrome. Such terms include (i) exercise dependence, (ii) obligatory exercising, (iii) exercise abuse, and (iv) compulsive exercise.

In a review on excessive exercise that I co-wrote with colleagues at Eotvos Lorand University (Budapest) and to be published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, we argued that the term ‘addiction’ is the most appropriate because it incorporates both dependence and compulsion. Based on research carried out internationally, we believe that exercise addiction should be classified within the category of behavioural addictions. The resemblance is evidenced not only in several common symptoms (e.g., salience, mood modification, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, conflict, relapse, etc.), but also in demographic characteristics, the prognosis of the disorder, co-morbidity, response to treatment, prevalence in the family, and etiology.

However, when it comes to Olympic athletes, we all know that they engage excessively in exercise and spend hours and hours every single day either training and competing. For many Olympians, their whole life is dominated by the activity and may impact on their relationships and family life. But does this mean they are addicted to exercise? In short, no! Why? Because the excessive exercise is clearly a by-product of the activity being their job. I would not call myself an internet addict just because I spend 5-10 hours a day on the internet. My excessive internet use is a by-product of the job I have as an academic. In short, the excessive internet use is functional.

However, just because I don’t believe Olympic athletes are addicted to exercise, it could perhaps be argued that they are addicted to work (and in this case, their work comprises the activity of exercise). I’m often asked what the difference is between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction. In short, healthy enthusiasms add to life but addictions takes away from it. On this simple criterion, maybe there are some Olympic athletes who are ‘addicted’ to their work.

The term ‘workaholism’ has been around for over 40 years since the publication of Wayne Oates’ 1971 book Confessions of a Workaholic, and has now passed into the public mainstream. Despite four decades of research into workaholism (and like exercise addiction), no single definition or conceptualization of this phenomenon has emerged. Workaholics have been conceptualized in different ways. For instance, workaholics are typically viewed as one (or a combination) of the following:

  • Those viewed as hyper-performers
  • Those viewed as unhappy and obsessive individuals who do not perform well in their jobs
  • Those who work as a way of stopping themselves thinking about their emotional and personal lives
  • Those who are over concerned with their work and neglect other areas of their lives.

Some of these may indeed be applied to Olympic athletes (particularly the reference to ‘hyper-performers’ and the fact that other areas of their lives may be neglected in pursuit of the ultimate goal). Some authors note that there is a behavioural component and a psychological component to workaholism. The behavioural component comprises working excessively hard (i.e., a high number of hours per day and/or week), whereas the psychological (dispositional) component comprises being obsessed with work (i.e., working compulsively and being unable to detach from work. Again, these behavioural and psychological components could potentially be applied to Olympic athletes.

There are also those scholars who differentiate between positive and negative forms of workaholism. For instance, some view workaholism as both a negative and complex process that eventually affects the person’s ability to function properly. In contrast, others highlight the workaholics who are totally achievement oriented and have perfectionist and compulsive-dependent traits. Here, the Olympic athlete might be viewed as a more positive form of workaholism. Research appears to indicate there are a number of central characteristics of workaholics. In short, they typically:

  • Spend a great deal of time in work activities
  • Are preoccupied with work even when they are not working
  • Work beyond what is reasonably expected from them to meet their job requirements.
  • Spend more time working because of an inner compulsion, rather than because of any external factors.

Again, some or all of these characteristics could be applied to Olympians. Hopefully, very few Olympic athletes are addicted, but if they are addicted, I would argue that it is more likely to be to their work rather than the exercise itself.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory,14, 631-646.

Allegre, B., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Individual factors and the context of physical activity in exercise dependence: A prospective study of ‘ultra-marathoners’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 233-243.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a Work Addiction Scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Exercise addiction: A case study. Addiction Research,  5, 161-168.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005).  Workaholism is still a useful construct  Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D., Szabo, A. & Terry, A. (2005). The Exercise Addiction Inventory: A quick and easy screening tool for health practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39, 30-31.

Mónok, K., Berczik, K., Urbán, R., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Farkas, J., Magi, A., Eisinger, A., Kurimay, T., Kökönyei, G., Kun, B., Paksi, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Psychometric properties and concurrent validity of two exercise addiction measures: A population wide study in Hungary. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 739-746.

Oates, W. (1971), Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction, World, New York.

Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Exercise addiction in British sport science students. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 25-28.

Terry, A., Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M. (2004). The Exercise Addiction Inventory: A new brief screening tool, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 489-499.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on August 8, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Exercise addiction, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi, Dr Mark!
    Can I quote you in an article I’m writing about the parameters of exercise addiction?
    The basic premise is ‘Is there such a thing as good addiction?’ and I’m addressing the misuse of the word ‘addiction’ as a catch all for behaviours that are perceived to be compulsive, when — like my horseriding 😀 — they are consistent because they are enjoyable.
    Let me know if it cool with you! Thanks, Susan

  2. Thanks, Mark! Both links are extremely helpful! I’ll send on a link, if the paper actually exerts itself to put the article online.
    Much appreciation,

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