Ride on high: Another look at the psychology (and cycleology) of ‘cycling addiction’
Back in 2012, I wrote an article on cycling addiction for my blog and classed the behaviour as a sub-type of exercise addiction. Recently (June 2016), I was interviewed by Cycling Weekly magazine for an article on addiction to cycling, so I thought it opportune to look at the issue again. Over the last five years or so there has been an increase in the amount of research into exercise addiction (as I have outlined in a number of papers with my Hungarian colleagues Attila Szabo and Zsolt Demetrovics – see ‘Further reading’ below). However, there has still been no empirical research specifically into cycling addiction. In his 1997 book Motivation and Emotion in Sport, Dr. John Kerr speculated that endurance type exercise activities (e.g. running, cycling, swimming, aerobics and weight training) were most often associated with exercise addiction and dependence but this was based more on anecdotal as opposed to scientific evidence.
For the Cycling Weekly article, I was interviewed by Dr. Josephine Perry (who just happed to be both a psychologist and a cyclist). She noted in her article that:
“As a regular cyclist, it’s very likely you take a close interest in performance and have a strong drive to improve coupled with a willingness to push yourself hard in training and racing. Sometimes you probably feel under attack from family or colleagues who question or tease you about your ‘obsessive’ cycling habit. You no doubt retaliate by citing the many benefits of cycling: the brilliant friendships, massive health improvements, toned body and all the places you get to explore on your bike. But do your critics occasionally have a point? Does your relentless drive to improve sometimes go too far and place you in danger of crossing the thin line from dedication into addiction? Addiction to cycling is defined by an incessant internal need to train hard every day without taking the time off that you need to rest and recover — not to mention attend to other commitments in your life. In other words, addiction is defined by harm. You ignore the pleas from family or friends to cut back. Your priorities get rearranged, and nothing is allowed to come between you and your bike. Once this line is crossed, the benefits of cycling begin to diminish. The addicted cyclist feels more aches and pains, becomes prone to physical injuries, regular colds and hidden illnesses”.
In a recent (2016) book chapter, my colleagues and I noted that exercise addiction (irrespective of the sub-type) is a condition in which a regularly exercising person loses control over her or his exercise behaviour, while acting compulsively and exhibiting dependence, resulting in negative consequences in their day-to-day health and/or life. This maladaptive exercise behaviour is characterized by severe withdrawal symptoms when exercise is not possible, similar to both chemical addictions (e.g., alcohol addiction) and other behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling addiction). Based on the scientific evidence, exercise addiction is relatively rare, ranging from 0.3% to 0.5% as noted in the only study published using a representative national sample of the general population that we carried out in Hungary back in 2012 (published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise). Given that exercise addiction (in general) is rare, the prevalence of cycling addiction would therefore be even lower. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
A recent study carried out by Dr. Bernd Zeulner and his colleagues among 1,031 endurance athletes (that included an unspecified number of cyclists) assessed the prevalence of exercise addiction using the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI; a scale that I co-developed with my colleagues Attila Szabo and Annabel Terry). The study (published in the journal Advances in Physical Education) found that 2.7% had the potential to develop an exercise addiction and that is higher than the prevalence among the general population.
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology by Dr. Jason Youngman and Dr. Duncan Simpson examined exercise addiction among 1,285 triathletes (cycling, swimming and running) also using the EAI. The study found that approximately 20% of triathletes were at risk for exercise addiction, and that training for longer distance races puts triathletes at greater risk for exercise addiction than training for shorter races. They also found that as the number of weekly training hours increased, so did a triathlete’s risk for exercise addiction. Despite the lack of empirical evidence specifically on cycling addiction, Dr. Perry also noted in her article that:
“[Addicted cyclists] can also become susceptible to burnout and all that comes with it: decreased performance, low mood, changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping and generally a feeling that the outcomes are not matching the intensity of the effort being put in. For a cycling addict, this loss of form and the feelings of difficulty can be devastating…Other research has found the risks are highest in those exercising over five times a week. With the average amount of training for serious amateur cyclists being around 10 hours a week, they are certainly in the higher-risk category”.
I am not sure which study Dr. Perry is referring to in this quote, but in my interview with her, I noted that from my perspective, any behaviour can be potentially addictive if the reward mechanisms are in place but that we should be cautious about imposing the ‘addiction’ label. I told her that we can’t define whether someone is addicted just by the behaviour that they display. It is all to do with the context of that behaviour in their life. More importantly, it’s is not about the amount of time spent engaging in the behaviour but what impact the behaviour has on them. As I explained:
“A healthy enthusiasm adds to their life. An addiction takes away from it. If you have no dependants and both you and your partner enjoy the sport and there is no conflict, it would not be classed as an addiction. If family conflict becomes a factor, the exercise habit becomes fraught with complications.”
I noted in my previous blog on cycling addiction that one of the traits that appears to be associated with exercise addiction is perfectionism according to a 1990 paper by Dr. Caroline Davis that appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Research (by Dr. Heather Hasenblaus among others) has also found that extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness predict exercise addiction symptoms. I also noted in my interview with Dr. Perry that some people (such as those with Type A personalities) appear to have their risk for exercise addiction built into them. Some cyclists will be those Type-A achievers who are reward-orientated to do the best they can, in whatever they do. If they take up a sport, those personality traits previously used to be successful and focused in other areas such as work go into the new area.
I also noted in my Cycling Weekly interview that there are a number of signs that can help you spot if your attitude towards cycling is unhealthy. The most obvious one is when cycling becomes the most important activity in your life, dominating thinking, feelings and behaviour. If you need to cycle more to get the same mood benefit that you used to, your mood changes significantly and/or you feel physical effects when you can’t cycle, you may also be at risk. If you start to resent your family, job, social life, hobbies or other interests getting in the way of you cycling, you need to consider if you have crossed the line. Those addicted to cycling are more likely to get into debt to fund their habit, become excessively controlling over their eating to regulate weight and competitiveness, and find it hard to balance work, social and family commitments with training.
I was also asked for my views on the treatment of cycling addiction and said that cognitive-behavioural therapy would likely be the most effective (as the addict would be guided to identify goals that motivate them and be helped to find safe and reasonable ways to reach those goals) but that the type of treatment depends on whether the addiction to cycling was primary or secondary. Primary addicts, who are actually addicted because they love their sport, will find it is very hard to give up. Telling them they can’t continue will be stressful in itself. Secondary addicts may be trying to lose weight or to escape negative, unpleasant feelings or difficulties in their lives, using cycling to control their thoughts. These cyclists are using exercise as a coping mechanism. The key here is finding out why they are doing it to such an extent in the first place. Most will find their addiction is symptomatic of something else.
After interviewing me about whether cycling can be potentially addictive, Dr. Perry summed up my own views arguably better than I could have done it myself:
“[Cycling addiction] is not just about how many hours you are doing on the bike, how much you love your riding, or how many bikes you have; what matters is the impact on your life. If your work and family life allows it without conflict, and you’re not feeling over-stressed or over-tired, then your commitment to cycling is just that – a commitment. If you are suffering from continual injuries and not recovering fully, have found yourself feeling burnt out, dips in mood, feel obliged to miss family or social events for training, resulting in arguments, then you need to ask yourself seriously: am I addicted?”
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Posted on August 5, 2016, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Exercise addiction, Obsession, Psychology, Work and tagged Amateur cycling, Behavioural addiction, Cognitive-behavioural therapy, Cycleology, Cycling addiction, Cycling Weekly, Endurance sports, Exercise, exercise addiction, Exercise Addiction Inventory, Exercise psychology, professional cycling, Sports psychology, Triathletes, Triathlon, Type A personality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.