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"Post-Olympics Let-Down" May Trigger Addiction

Olympians "dependent on exercise" may face depression and substance abuse when the games are over.

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By Valerie Tejeda

08/02/12

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Winning Olympic gold may trigger depression and addiction, according to a new study. Past research has found intensive exercise can be as addictive as heroin, which is why athletes with such demanding training often develop a dependence. A third of elite athletes have an "unhealthy preoccupation" with training, scientists in Melbourne found—and for many athletes, stopping exercise can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as drug-like withdrawal symptoms. “Exercise can be like a pill,” says 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.”

The findings shed light on why Olympic athletes may be more prone to eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide than the rest of the general population and may need help adjusting to life when the games are over. “We call it the post-Olympics let-down," says Nicole Detling, a sport psychology consultant for the US Speed Skating team and the US Ski and Snowboard Association. She notes that the time period following retirement can be psychologically painful, and can drive many athletes in to clinical depression. “A lot of retired athletes report fairly significant mental health concerns and an increased level of substance dependence,” says 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.”

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