Message to Olympians: be careful what you wish for. Going for gold can trigger a bad case of the blues -- or worse.
Research shows intensive exercise is as addictive as heroin, putting retiring Olympians at risk of depression. A third of elite athletes have an unhealthy preoccupation with training, scientists in Melbourne found in a study published in March. And the biological mechanisms of this so-called exercise dependence tend to mimic those involved in drug addiction, researchers at Tufts University in Boston said. Anxiety and depression may ensue when exercise stops, according to the Tufts study.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence that sheds light on why athletes may be more prone to substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide than the general population, and why they might require help adjusting after years spent engaged in relentless sports training.
“A lot of retired athletes report fairly significant mental health concerns and an increased level of substance dependence,” said Frances Quirk, co-editor-in-chief of the journal Performance Enhancement & Health. “There are other factors that contribute to that in terms of pressure, isolation and competition, but there is a biological story.”
While scientists have understood for several years the addictive nature of exercise, what hasn’t been appreciated until now is the degree to which curtailing training can lead to drug-like withdrawal symptoms.
“No one wants to talk about it, no one wants to retire, and no one wants to think about the end,” said Nicole Detling, a visiting professor at the University of Utah College of Health and a sport psychology consultant for the U.S. Speed Skating team and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
“We call it the post-Olympics let-down,” she said. “Within the time period following the Olympics, even those who’ve medaled have this period of time where if they were checked for depression, they’d be diagnosed.”
To address those concerns, Australia will hold seminars nationwide for its athletes retiring after the London Olympics to help them cope with the transition, said Nathan Price, a consultant with the Australian Sports Commission in Canberra.
Like a Pill
Meantime, the evidence continues to mount that intensive training can have unforeseen consequences. A study of 234 elite adult athletes in Australia showed 35 percent probably had exercise dependence where they perceived severe physical, mental and social consequences if they didn’t train. The study, by Justin McNamara and Marita McCabe at Melbourne’s Deakin University, was published in March in the Journal of Sports Sciences, and followed research in competitive runners in the U.S. in 2010 and triathletes in Hong Kong in 2002 that found more than half had compulsive-exercise tendencies.
“Exercise can be like a pill,” said David Bentley, a triathlete who teaches exercise physiology at the University of Adelaide. “It does similar things chemically to a number of different systems in the body, and if you exercise all the time, your body will change almost like it does in response to some pharmacological interventions.”
Regular exercise has long been known to benefit those people with a predisposition for depression. Prolonged jogging raises people’s spirits with the release of endorphins, the body’s own opioids, scientists in Germany found in 2008. The research showed that jogging not only produces a so-called runner’s high, it can also relieve pain.
Additionally, the same brain receptors activated by marijuana may also play a major role in generating reward from high-intensity endurance running, David Raichlen and colleagues at the University of Arizona said in a study in April.
Taken to extremes, physical activity can transition into addictive-like behavior and interfere with the normal functions of life, Robin B. Kanarek at colleagues in the department of psychology at Tufts University found. Their research on lab rats found exercise increases the production of endorphins, which have a similar activity in the brain to chronic administration of opiates, such as morphine and heroin.
Both running and drugs tap a reward system in the brain involving dopamine, according to their research, which was published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience in 2009. When the reward pathway is blocked by an opiate antidote, exercising rats become withdrawn in a sign of depression, the authors said.
Similarly, the mental health of athletes who stop rigorous training through injury or retirement may also suffer, said Quirk, who is an associate professor in psychology at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.
“The connection makes total sense,” said Gaylene Clews, a sports psychologist in Canberra who was the world champion female triathlete in 1985. “They have now put the science behind what those of us who have been working in the industry have known for the past two decades. We call it burn out.”
Seven-times Olympic medalist and former world record holder Amanda Beard, 30, told in a memoir released in April how her swimming career was troubled by clinical depression, sometimes manifesting in bulimia and drug and alcohol abuse.
Australian Geoff Huegill, 33, took drugs, suffered depression, gained 45 kilograms (100 pounds) and contemplated suicide following his retirement from swimming after the 2004 Athens Olympics, the eight times world record holder recalled.
O.J. Murdock, a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans who failed to report to training camp last week, died of what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said on July 30. The 25-year-old had spent last season on injured reserve after damaging his right Achilles tendon. A year ago, Olympic skier Jeret Peterson committed suicide a week after pleading not guilty to a drunken driving charge in Hailey, Idaho.
“They have been on center stage and have had a lot of adulation,” said Jayashri Kulkarni, director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Melbourne. “The more ‘real’ and grounded the person is, the easier they can step out of the elite role to see it for what it is and have a structure to fall back on.”
Anxiety disorders aren’t unusual among high-performance athletes, Valentin Markser, a psychiatrist in the German city of Koln, estimated in a review article last year.
Twenty percent of female and 7.7 percent of male professional athletes from Norway, as well as 60 percent of female gymnasts with normal weight have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, he said. In other sports, exhaustion-linked depression was noted in 60 percent of long-distance runners and half of basketball players at least once in their sporting careers, he said.
‘Not That Good’
The chemical impact from physical wear and tear, which increases inflammation, may worsen the problem, according to Quirk at James Cook University. Pro-inflammatory molecules may act on receptors in the brain, triggering depression and more severe forms of mental illness, she said.
“Being an elite athlete is actually not that good for your health,” she said.