Exercise addiction. It sounds like an oxymoron—exercise has a healthy connotation, while addiction sounds negative.

But experts are seeing some people abuse a healthy lifestyle—and for one Los Angeles woman, the addiction lasted nearly 20 years. Misti, a 46-year-old woman who declined to give her last name due to privacy concerns, said she became addicted to exercise after college.

“It wasn’t until recently that I knew exercise addiction was a problem,”said Misti, who is in a 12-step program and has tried medicinal therapy. “At one point, I had three gym memberships, two trainers and…I was obsessed.”

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Misti said like an alcoholic looking for the next drink, she had to be near a gym at all times. “I had to scope it out, and wherever I was going to travel for work, the first question I would ask was not, ‘where am I staying?,’ but ‘how far is the gym from the hotel?'” Misti said, adding she chose to exercise over spending time with her friends or boyfriends.

It got to a point where if Misti missed her morning workout, she would leave work to exercise—or if she ate a big holiday meal, she would immediately go running—and not spend time with her family. “I had to know when the next triathlon was,” she said, adding she constantly thought about burning an extra pound or if she should be lifting more weights. “All my life revolved around the next exercise ‘fix.’ ”

Experiencing a ‘high’

At first, the people around Misti thought she was just trying to be healthy—but it soon became apparent she had a real problem. Her family and friends tried to speak up—but she thought they were the mistaken ones.

Experts say since exercise releases endorphins, exercise addicts can experience a ‘high’ similar to drug and alcohol addicts. David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University medical school, told the New York Times in October 2011 that exercise addicts can also feel tolerance, cravings and withdrawal.

There are three types of addiction—chemical, process and physiological, said Andrew Spanswick, a social worker and CEO of KLEAN Treatment Center, which is located in areas across the country.

Twelve to 18% of Americans have an addiction, and most people have more than one, Spanswick said. Exercise addiction is classified as a process disorder—just like sex or gambling addictions.

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When an action or thought dictates a repetitive behavior  to satisfy that drive—then you have a problem, Spanswick added.

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