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Addiction to Cycling: Could It Be a Real Threat?

By Adam Marsal

Sometimes, every cyclist can find themselves in a situation where he or she is supposed to defend their passion against the objections of their loved ones. The most cited argument is that the cycling member of the family should share more time with others and less with the bike. Despite the obvious benefits of the sport, is there a real risk that we might get obsessed with cycling? Several studies proved that regular exercise including cycling is capable of causing an addiction to develop. Is it a threat for you too?

Many studies conducted in the last twenty years confirmed that excessive exercise practice could encourage the appearance of addictive behavioural patterns and health problems. Addiction to cycling is explained as a permanent internal need to ride as often as possible without taking time off to rest. This way, cycling can cause not only positive feelings but also harm to both our mental state and social life. The addiction can be followed by worries or pleas from family or friends to slow down. Compulsive thoughts are often responsible for mood swings, decreasing performance and can eventually cause a distaste towards the sport as such.

Bicycle outdoor
Is cycling addictive? © Profimedia

Some cyclists are describing feelings of depression, negative thoughts about the dropping fitness level, frustration or overall unhappiness. Several warning signs might indicate the turn from a dedicated to an addicted cyclist. The main difference is the onset of negative emotions that appear when cycling time is reduced, no matter the reason for the break.

If an addicted rider takes a day off, their mind struggles with remorse and regret that they should have taken the ride. Moreover, other daily tasks are slowly turning dull or irritating. In moments of depression, they need to go out and cycle no matter the weather just because they know it will improve their mood. Despite an increased number of riding sessions, however, it’s more and more difficult to achieve a state of satisfaction. Without exaggerating, some of these points do sound familiar to us, don’t they? Have you recognized yourself in these paragraphs? You might want to tone thing down a bit.

Some experts object that, despite certain similarities, the concept of addiction refers to excessive and out-of-control consumption of psychotropic substances like alcohol or tobacco more likely than to sports. Cycling is considered safe by many others because it is enjoyed by millions without any side effects. With no apparent withdrawal symptoms or harm within the family, who should care?

The addiction can be followed by pleas from family to slow down. © Profimedia

Some scientists, however, point out that addiction increasingly applies to a group of syndromes known as ’behavioural addictions’, which also include gambling. If playing one-armed bandit in the casino might develop an addiction, why not cycling, though? Although addiction to exercise is not recognized as such, different authors consider that it could fit into the category of behavioural addictions. Bad news for cyclists is that of all the types of sport studied, endurance sports were those showing the greatest risk of addiction.

Where does that problem come from? Endurance cyclists commonly experience neurobiological rewards during and after completing a certain distance. Endorphins produced by the body are converted into opiate-like peptides, which can cause dependence and consequently become responsible for withdrawal symptoms because beta-endorphin is secreted during intensive exercise. Several studies have examined the effects of exercise intensity on endogenous opioid production during cycling.

Sensations experienced have been described as a state of sheer joy, euphoria, inner harmony, limitless energy, feelings of wellbeing and a reduced perception of pain. Such emotions and sensations are very similar to those described by people addicted to other types of substances. If we make a break in a developed cycling habit, we start missing something, which might be regarded as a withdrawal symptom.

Group of cyclists
Endorphines produced by cycling convert into opiate-like peptides.

People addicted to sports experience periods in which they are incapable of controlling their habits because of the pleasure this activity brings them, regardless of any negative consequences. Translated into layman terms, addicted people would prefer cycling to spending an afternoon with the kids even if they had been neglecting their family for several days. Submitting to the need to cycle while disregarding the impact on their family or jobs might be considered a negative outcome. When negative effects prevail, a substantial risk of addiction has emerged. What should we do then and, more importantly, is there any way out?

The key feature is considering the impact on your life. If you cycle a lot but your work and family life stays compatible and you’re not feeling guilty or overtrained, then the entire state can be described as a commitment. If you are suffering from symptoms mentioned above, however, then you need to take it seriously. Treatment of addiction tends to be based on the cognitive-behavioural approach. The affected cyclists would be advised to see a cognitive-behavioural therapy psychologist who would help them battle the addiction by resetting the approach to cycling from ground zero.