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Running up debt: A brief overview of our recent papers on exercise and shopping addictions

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling and other addictive behaviours, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on exercise addiction and shopping addictions (i.e., compulsive buying).

Griffiths, M.D., Urbán, R., Demetrovics, Z., Lichtenstein, M.B., de la Vega, R., Kun, B., Ruiz-Barquín, R., Youngman, J. & Szabo, A. (2015). A cross-cultural re-evaluation of the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI) in five countries. Sports Medicine Open, 1:5.

  • Research into the detrimental effects of excessive exercise has been conceptualized in a number of similar ways, including ‘exercise addiction’, ‘exercise dependence’, ‘obligatory exercising’, ‘exercise abuse’, and ‘compulsive exercise’. Among the most currently used (and psychometrically valid and reliable) instruments is the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI). The present study aimed to further explore the psychometric properties of the EAI by combining the datasets of a number of surveys carried out in five different countries (Denmark, Hungary, Spain, UK, and US) that have used the EAI with a total sample size of 6,031 participants. A series of multigroup confirmatory factor analyses (CFAs) were carried out examining configural invariance, metric invariance, and scalar invariance. The CFAs using the combined dataset supported the configural invariance and metric invariance but not scalar invariance. Therefore, EAI factor scores from five countries are not comparable because the use or interpretation of the scale was different in the five nations. However, the covariates of exercise addiction can be studied from a cross-cultural perspective because of the metric invariance of the scale. Gender differences among exercisers in the interpretation of the scale also emerged. The implications of the results are discussed, and it is concluded that the study’s findings will facilitate a more robust and reliable use of the EAI in future research.

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.

  • Objectives: The existence of exercise addiction has been examined in numerous studies. However, none of the measures developed for exercise addiction assessment have been validated on representative samples. Furthermore, estimates of exercise addiction prevalence in the general population are not available. The objective of the present study was to validate the Exercise Addiction Inventory (EAI; Terry, Szabo, & Griffiths, 2004), and the Exercise Dependence Scale (EDS; Hausenblas & Downs, 2002b), and to estimate the prevalence of exercise addiction in general population. Design: Exercise addiction was assessed within the framework of the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (NSAPH), a national representative study for the population aged 18–64 years (N = 2710). Method: 474 people in the sample (57% males; mean age 33.2 years) who reported to exercise at least once a week were asked to complete the two questionnaires (EAI, EDS). Results: Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) indicated good fit both in the case of EAI (CFI = 0.971; TLI = 0.952; RMSEA = 0.052) and EDS (CFI = 0.938; TLI = 0.922; RMSEA = 0.049); and confirmed the factor structure of the two scales. The correlation between the two measures was high (r = 0.79). Results showed that 6.2% (EDS) and 10.1% (EAI) of the population were characterized as nondependent-symptomatic exercisers, while the proportion of the at-risk exercisers were 0.3% and 0.5%, respectively. Conclusions: Both EAI and EDS proved to be a reliable assessment tool for exercise addiction, a phenomenon that is present in the 0.3–0.5% of the adult general population.

Szabo, A., Griffiths, M.D., de La Vega Marcos, R., Mervo, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Methodological and conceptual limitations in exercise addiction research. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 86, 303-308.

  • The aim of this brief analytical review is to highlight and disentangle research dilemmas in the field of exercise addiction. Research examining exercise addiction is primarily based on self-reports, obtained by questionnaires (incorporating psychometrically validated instruments), and interviews, which provide a range of risk scores rather than diagnosis. Survey methodology indicates that the prevalence of risk for exercise addiction is approximately 3 percent among the exercising population. Several studies have reported a substantially greater prevalence of risk for exercise addiction in elite athletes compared to those who exercise for leisure. However, elite athletes may assign a different interpretation to the assessment tools than leisure exercisers. The present paper examines the: 1) discrepancies in the classification of exercise addiction; 2) inconsistent reporting of exercise addiction prevalence; and 3) varied interpretation of exercise addiction diagnostic tools. It is concluded that there is the need for consistent terminology, to follow-up results derived from exercise addiction instruments with interviews, and to follow a theory-driven rationale in this area of research.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

  • Although excessive and compulsive shopping has been increasingly placed within the behavioral addiction paradigm in recent years, items in existing screens arguably do not assess the core criteria and components of addiction. To date, assessment screens for shopping disorders have primarily been rooted within the impulse-control or obsessive-compulsive disorder paradigms. Furthermore, existing screens use the terms ‘shopping,’ ‘buying,’ and ‘spending’ interchangeably, and do not necessarily reflect contemporary shopping habits. Consequently, a new screening tool for assessing shopping addiction was developed. Initially, 28 items, four for each of seven addiction criteria (salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, relapse, and problems), were constructed. These items and validated scales (i.e., Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale, Mini-International Personality Item Pool, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) were then administered to 23,537 participants (Mage = 35.8 years, SDage = 13.3). The highest loading item from each set of four pooled items reflecting the seven addiction criteria were retained in the final scale, The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS). The factor structure of the BSAS was good (RMSEA=0.064, CFI=0.983, TLI=0.973) and coefficient alpha was 0.87. The scores on the BSAS converged with scores on the Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale (CBMS; 0.80), and were positively correlated with extroversion and neuroticism, and negatively with conscientiousness, agreeableness, and intellect/imagination. The scores of the BSAS were positively associated with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem and inversely related to age. Females scored higher than males on the BSAS. The BSAS is the first scale to fully embed shopping addiction within an addiction paradigm. A recommended cutoff score for the new scale and future research directions are discussed.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

  • ‘Mall disorders’ such as excessive eating and compulsive buying appear to be increasing, particularly among women. A battery of questionnaires was used in an attempt to determine this association between specific personality traits (i.e., reward sensitivity, impulsivity, cognitive and somatic anxiety, self-esteem, and social desirability) and excessive eating and compulsive buying in 134 women. Reward sensitivity and cognitive anxiety were positively related to excessive eating and compulsive buying, as was impulsivity to compulsive buying. Somatic anxiety and social desirability were negatively related to compulsive buying. These preliminary findings indicate that excessive behaviours are not necessarily interrelated. The behaviours examined in this study appear to act as an outlet for anxiety via the behaviours’ reinforcing properties (e.g., pleasure, attention, praise, etc.). As a consequence, this may boost self-esteem. The findings also appear to indicate a number of risk factors that could be used as ‘warning signs’ that the behaviour may develop into an addiction.

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

  • Due to the problems of measurement and the lack of nationally representative data, the extent of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) is relatively unknown. The validity of three different instruments was tested: Edwards Compulsive Buying Scale, Questionnaire About Buying Behavior and Richmond Compulsive Buying Scale using two independent samples. One was nationally representative of the Hungarian population (N=2710) while the other comprised shopping mall customers (N=1447). As a result, a new, four-factor solution for the ECBS was developed (Edwards Compulsive Buying Scale Revised (ECBS-R)), and confirmed the other two measures. Additionally, cut-off scores were defined for all measures. Results showed that the prevalence of CBB is 1.85% (with QABB) in the general population but significantly higher in shopping mall customers (8.7% with ECBS-R, 13.3% with QABB and 2.5% with RCBS-R). Conclusively, due to the diversity of content, each measure identifies a somewhat different CBB group.

Maraz, A., Griffiths, M.D., & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). The prevalence of compulsive buying in non-clinical populations: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction, 111, 408-419.

  • Aims: To estimate the pooled prevalence of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) in different populations and to determine the effect of age, gender, location and screening instrument on the reported heterogeneity in estimates of CBB and whether publication bias could be identified. Methods: Three databases were searched (Medline, PsychInfo, Web of Science) using the terms ‘compulsive buying’, ‘pathological buying’ and ‘compulsive shopping’ to estimate the pooled prevalence of CBB in different populations. Forty studies reporting 49 prevalence estimates from 16 countries were located (n = 32 000). To conduct the meta-analysis, data from non-clinical studies regarding mean age and gender proportion, geographical study location and screening instrument used to assess CBB were extracted by multiple independent observers and evaluated using a random-effects model. Four a priori subgroups were analysed using pooled estimation (Cohen’s Q) and covariate testing (moderator and meta-regression analysis). Results: The CBB pooled prevalence of adult representative studies was 4.9% (3.4–6.9%, eight estimates, 10 102 participants), although estimates were higher among university students: 8.3% (5.9–11.5%, 19 estimates, 14 947 participants) in adult non-representative samples: 12.3% (7.6–19.1%, 11 estimates, 3929 participants) and in shopping-specific samples: 16.2% (8.8–27.8%, 11 estimates, 4686 participants). Being young and female were associated with increased tendency, but not location (United States versus non-United States). Meta-regression revealed large heterogeneity within subgroups, due mainly to diverse measures and time-frames (current versus life-time) used to assess CBB. Conclusions: A pooled estimate of compulsive buying behaviour in the populations studied is approximately 5%, but there is large variation between samples accounted for largely by use of different time-frames and measures.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, 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.

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.

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Kökönyei, G., Urbán, R. and Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction – the emergence of a new disorder. Australasian Epidemiologist, 21(2), 36-40.

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Urban, R. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.317-342). New York: Elsevier.

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

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.

Kurimay, T., Griffiths, M.D., Berczik, K., & Demetrovics, Z. (2013). Exercise addiction: The dark side of sports and exercise. In Baron, D., Reardon, C. & Baron, S.H., Contemporary Issues in Sports Psychiatry: A Global Perspective (pp.33-43). Chichester: Wiley.

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.D. (2004). The Exercise Addiction Inventory: A new brief screening tool, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 489-499.

Warner, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). A qualitative thematic analysis of exercise addiction: An exploratory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 13-26.

Let’s get physical: Exercise addiction (revisited)

At present, exercise addiction is not officially recognised in any medical or psychological diagnostic frameworks such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or the World Health Association’s International Classification of Diseases. However, there has been a lot of research into whether exercise can be classed as a bona fide addiction. In spite of the widespread usage of the term ‘exercise addiction’ there are many different terminologies that describe excessive exercise syndrome. Such terms include ‘exercise dependence’, ‘obligatory exercising’, ‘exercise abuse’, and ‘compulsive exercise’. Exercise addiction has been conceptualised as a behavioural addiction. The symptoms and consequences of exercise addiction have often been characterised by six common components of addiction: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, personal conflict, and relapse.

For some people, exercise addiction is a primary problem in the person’s life whereas in others it can be a secondary problem as a consequence of other psychological dysfunctions (like eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa). In the former case, the dysfunction is considered as primary exercise addiction, while in the latter case it is termed as secondary exercise addiction because it co-occurs with another dysfunction. The differentiating feature between the two is that in primary exercise addiction the objective is the exercise itself, whereas in secondary exercise addiction the objective is weight loss, where excessive exercise is one of the primary means in achieving the desired objective.

The incentive or motive for fulfilling planned exercise is an important distinguishing characteristic between addicted and nonaddicted exercisers. The reason people exercise is often for an intangible reward such as feeling in shape, looking good, being with friends, staying healthy, building muscles, losing weight, etc. The personal experience of the anticipated reward reinforces and strengthens the exercise behaviour. Committed exercisers maintain their exercise for benefiting or gaining from their activity and thus, their behaviour is motivated via positive reinforcement. However, empirical research has demonstrated that addicted exercisers have to exercise in order to avoid negative feelings or withdrawal. The individual’s exercise may become a chore that has to be fulfilled, or otherwise an unwanted event would occur (such as the inability to cope with stress, or gaining weight, becoming moody, etc.). Every time a person undertakes behaviour to avoid something negative, bad, and/or unpleasant, the motive behind that behaviour acts as a negative reinforcement. In these situations, the person feels they have to do it rather than wanting to do it.

Mood modification is a key factor among the symptoms of exercise addiction and suggests there is a self-medication aspect of exercise that facilitates the distinction between normal and abnormal exercise. Addicts do not simply exercise to experience the joy of it, but rather to escape negative, unpleasant feelings and everyday difficulties.

The Exercise Addiction Inventory is one of the most recent and most widely used screening tools in the research area of exercise addiction, primarily because of its brevity and excellent psychometric properties (i.e., reliability and validity). The EAI comprises only six statements, each corresponding to one of the symptoms in the ’components’ model of addiction. Each statement is rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The EAI cut-off score for individuals considered at-risk of exercise addiction is 24 out of 30. To date, the only nationally representative study examining exercise addiction is a study that I co-authored with some Hungarian colleagues. We surveyed over 2,700 Hungarian adults aged 18–64 years and assessed exercise addiction using the EAI. Results showed that the proportion of the people at risk for exercise addiction was 0.5%.

There are numerous theories that deal with both the causes of exercise addiction and the process and mechanisms of its development and maintenance. A significant number of psychological theories are based on learning theory or the cognitive psychology approach. According to the theory of functioning, both positive reinforcers (e.g., a feeling of euphoria following exercise or muscle growth from exercise) and negative reinforcers (e.g. an end to unpleasant feelings through exercise or avoidance of the presumed negative effect of missed exercise) may lie behind the development and maintenance of exercise addiction which, according to the fundamental principles of learning theory, may contribute to the establishment of compulsive and addictive exercise that may be viewed as maladaptive.

One of my research colleagues, Dr. Attila Szabo stresses the role of cognitive appraisal mechanisms in the development of the vicious cycle that leads to excessive exercise. The process starts when the habitual exerciser uses exercise as a means of coping with stress, and the affected individual learns to depend on exercise at times of stress. The addicted exerciser is then trapped in a vicious cycle of needing increased amounts of exercise to deal with the consistently increasing life stress, part of which is caused by exercise itself.

It also appears that the issue of self-assessment represents a further significant factor among the psychological factors in the sense that during exercise, the physical strength experienced through exercise in a person dissatisfied with his or her body or body image contributes to the formation of a more positive self-image and self-assessment. It has also been shown that exercise activities (such as weightlifting) have a positive effect on body image and self-esteem both in men and in women. Perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive functioning, and heightened anxiety have also been claimed to be determining factors in exercise addiction.

The public promotion of healthy and appropriate exercise patterns may reduce the incidence of exercise addiction. It is important in public health programs and campaigns to (i) stress the healthy nature of regular exercise and (ii) communicate the message that exercise when taken to excess can be potentially harmful. It is important to raise awareness of potential harm within the population of regular exercisers. Some psychologists claim that individuals with exercise addiction have a poor understanding of the negative health consequences of excessive exercising, of the mechanism of exercise adaptation, and the need for rest between exercise sessions. The use of education may be an effective step in the prevention and treatment of exercise addiction.

As with other addictive disorders, the environment of regular exercisers also plays a significant role in recognising this condition early. In more severe cases psychotherapeutic interventions may be needed. When treating exercise addiction, abstinence from exercise may not be a required and/or realistic goal, because exercise has many benefits for health and no one would advocate doing no exercise. Therefore, the typical treatment goal would more likely be be to return to moderate and controlled exercise. In some cases, a different form of exercise may be recommended.

CASE STUDY

Joanna is a 25-year old student, well-educated female, from a stable family background, who realized that she had a problem surrounding exercise, and more specifically the martial art Jiu-Jitsu. Here, Joanna’s behavior is described in terms of the main components of addiction:

  • Salience: Jiu-Jitsu is the most important activity in Joanna’s life. Even when not actually engaged in the activity, she is thinking about the next training session or competition. She estimates that she spends approximately six hours a day (and sometimes much more) involved in training (e.g., weight training, jogging, general exercise, etc.).
  • Tolerance: Joanna started Jiu-Jitsu at an evening class once a week during her teenage years and built up slowly over a period of about five years. She now exercises every single day, and the lengths of the sessions have become longer and longer (suggesting tolerance).
  • Withdrawal: Joanna claims she becomes highly agitated and irritable if she is unable to exercise. She claims she also gets headaches and feels nauseous if she goes for more than a day without training or has to miss a scheduled session.
  • Mood modification: Joanna experiences mood changes in a number of ways. She feels very high and ‘buzzed up’ if she has done well in a Jiu-Jitsu competition (especially so if she wins). She also feels high if she has trained hard and for a long time.
  • Conflict: Joanna’s relationship with her long-term partner ended as a result of her exercise. She claimed she never spent much time with him and was not even bothered about their break-up. Her university work suffered because of the lack of time and concentration.
  • Loss of control: Joanna claims she cannot stop herself engaging in exercise when she “gets the urge”. Once she has started, she has to do a minimum of a few hours of exercise.
  • Relapse: Joanna has continually tried to stop and/or cut down but claims she cannot. She becomes highly anxious if she is unable to engage in exercise and then has to go out and train to make herself feel better. She is well aware that exercise has taken over her life but feels powerless to stop it.
  • Negative consequences: Joanna spends money beyond her means to maintain her exercising habit (e.g., on entrance fees for weight training, swimming, entrance fees enter Jiu-Jitsu tournaments across the country, etc.). She has resorted to socially unacceptable means (e.g., stealing) in order to get money to fund herself

In short, exercise is the most important thing in Joana’s life, and the number of hours engaged in physical activity per week has increased substantially over a five-year period. She displays withdrawal symptoms when she does not exercise, and experiences euphoric experiences related to various aspects of her exercising (e.g., training hard, winning competitions, etc.). She experiences conflict over exercise in many areas of her life and acknowledges she has a problem. Furthermore, she has lost friends, her relationship has broken down, her academic work has suffered, and she has considerable debt.

Note: An expanded version of this article was first published by Rehabs.com

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, 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.

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

Downs, D. S., Hausenblas, H. A., & Nigg, C. R. (2004). Factorial validity and psychomaetric examination of the Exercise Dependence Scale-Revised. Measurement in Phisical Education and Exercise Science, 8, 183-201.

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

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, e30-31.

Hausenblas H. A., & Downs, S. D. (2002a) Exercise dependence: a systematic review. Psychology of Sport Exercise, 3, 89-123.

Hausenblas, H. A., & Downs, S. D. (2002). How much is too much? The development and validation of the exercise dependence scale. Psychology and Health, 17, 387-404.

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.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Szabo, A. (2000). Physical activity as a source of psychological dysfunction. In S. J. Biddle, K. R. Fox & S. H. Boutcher (Eds.), Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being (pp. 130-153). London: Routledge.

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.

Running on empty: Can excessive exercise really be an addiction?

Back in 1997, I published my first academic paper on exercise addiction – a case study of a young women addicted to martial arts – at least according to the definition of exercise I was using. However, at present, exercise addiction is not officially recognised in any medical or psychological diagnostic frameworks such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or the World Health Association’s International Classification of Diseases. However, there has been a lot of research into whether exercise can be classed as a bona fide addiction.

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 recent review that I co-wrote with Dr Zsolt Demetrovics and colleagues at Eotvos Lorand University (Budapest), we believe 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, but also in demographic characteristics, the prognosis of the disorder, co-morbidity, response to treatment, prevalence in the family, and etiology.

But how is exercise addiction assessed? Several instruments have been developed and adopted for the assessment of exercise addiction. Two relatively early scales, the ‘Commitment to Running Scale’ and the ‘Negative Addiction Scale’ are no longer used because of theoretical and methodological shortcomings. Among the psychometrically tested instruments, the ‘Obligatory Exercise Questionnaire’ (OEQ), the ‘Exercise Dependence Scale’ (EDS), and the ‘Exercise Dependence Questionnaire’ (EDQ) have proved to be both psychometrically valid and reliable instruments for assessing the symptoms and the extent of exercise addiction.

The OEQ is a 20-item self-report questionnaire that assesses the urge for undertaking exercise. The questionnaire has three subscales comprising (i) the emotional element of exercise, (ii) exercise frequency and intensity, and (iii) exercise preoccupation. The EDS conceptualizes compulsive exercise on the basis of the DSM criteria for substance abuse or addiction, and empirical research shows that it is able to differentiate between at-risk, dependent and non-dependent athletes, and also between physiological and non-physiological addiction. The EDS comprises seven subscales including (i) tolerance, (ii) withdrawal, (iii) intention effect, (iv) lack of control, (v) time, (vi) reduction of other activities, and (vii) continuance. In contrast to the EDS, the EDQ is aimed to measure compulsive exercise behaviour as a multidimensional construct. Furthermore, it can be used in assessing compulsion in many different forms of physical activities.

To generate a quick and easily administrable tool for surface screening of exercise addiction, I, and my colleagues (Annabel Terry and Attila Szabo), developed the ‘Exercise Addiction Inventory’ (EAI), a short 6-item instrument aimed at identifying the risk of exercise addiction. The EAI assesses the six common symptoms of addictive behaviours, namely (i) salience, (ii) mood modification, (iii) tolerance, (iv) withdrawal symptoms, (v) social conflict, and (vi) relapse. The EAI has been psychometrically investigated and has relatively high internal consistency and convergent validity with the EDS.

There are several other instruments available for assessing exercise addiction. However, they are either rarely adopted in research or are aimed at a specific form of physical activity such as body building (such as the ‘Bodybuilding Dependency Scale’). A more general but seldom adopted instrument is the ‘Exercise Beliefs Questionnaire’ (EBQ) that assesses individual thoughts and beliefs about exercise and it is based on four factors comprising (i) social desirability, (ii) physical appearance, (iii) mental and emotional functioning, and (iv) vulnerability to disease and aging. Empirical testing shows the instrument to have acceptable psychometric properties. There is also the ‘Exercise Dependence Interview’ (EXDI) that not only assesses compulsive exercising, but also eating disorders. However, one of the major limitations of this measure is that no psychometric properties have been reported.

Another scale is the ‘Commitment to Exercise Scale’ (CES) that examines the pathological aspects of exercising (e.g., continued training despite injuries) and compulsory activities (e.g., feeling guilty when exercise is not fulfilled). The CES has a satisfactory level of reliability. Finally the ‘Exercise Orientation Questionnaire’ (EOQ) measures attitudes towards exercise and related behaviours. The EOQ comprises six factors including (i) self-control, (ii) orientation to exercise, (iii) self-loathing, (iv) weight reduction, (v) competition, and (vi) identity.

Of these instruments outlined, the most popular currently are the EDS and the EAI (due to its brevity and easy scoring). Research has shown that when employed together, these two instruments yield comparable results. Despite the development of all these different scales and screening tools, their existence does not guarantee that exercise addiction will ever be officially recognised by the medical and/or psychiatric community.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, 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.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2011.639120

Downs, D. S., Hausenblas, H. A., & Nigg, C. R. (2004). Factorial Validity and Psychometric Examination of the Exercise Dependence Scale-Revised. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 8(4), 183-201.

Downs, D. S., Hausenblas, H. A., & Nigg, C. R. (2004). Factorial Validity and Psychometric Examination of the Exercise Dependence Scale-Revised. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 8(4), 183-201.

Freimuth M., Moniz S., & Kim S.R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: Differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8, 4069-4081.

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

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(6), e30.

Ogden, J., Veale, D. M., & Summers, Z. (1997). The development and validation of the Exercise Dependence Questionnaire. Addiction Research, 5(4), 343-355.

Pasman, L. N., & Thompson, J. K. (1988). Body image and eating disturbance in obligatory runners, obligatory weightlifters, and sedentary individuals. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 7(6), 759-769.

Terry, A., Szabo, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2004). The exercise addiction inventory: A new brief screening tool. Addiction Research and Theory, 12(5), 489-499.

Yates, A., Edman, J. D., Crago, M., & Crowell, D. (2001). Using an exercise-based instrument to detect signs of an eating disorder. Psychiatry Research, 105(3), 231-241.