The dangers of compulsive exercise

Exercise is an important part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle, but for some, an extreme focus can be dangerous.

Exercise can have many benefits for your physical and mental health, and social connectedness, but some people can develop an unhealthy, or even compulsive attitude to exercise. Compulsive exercise can also affect other areas of your life, and this can place someone at risk of a whole range of physical and mental health issues. 

What is compulsive exercise?

Everyone is different, and what might be a healthy amount of exercise for one person will be an unhealthy amount for someone else. If someone is exercising only to relieve guilt or anxiety from eating, or because they feel obligated to, it can be a sign that they have an unhealthy attitude towards exercise. In general, exercising despite illness or injury, or experiencing anxiety and distress over missed workouts, can all be signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. 

Is compulsive exercise dangerous?

There are a range of serious physical consequences associated with compulsive exercise such as an elevated heart rate, insomnia, fatigue and injuries due to overuse. Women who engage in an excessive amount of exercise can develop amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods). Exercising despite being ill or injured  can exacerbate these conditions, potentially leading to long term injuries and health issues. 

Is compulsive exercise a form of eating disorder?

Compulsive exercise is not an eating disorder, however people who are compulsively exercising often experience a range of eating disorder-related symptoms like unhealthy eating patterns, social withdrawal and body image concerns. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to also experience compulsive exercise. Someone who has an eating disorder and is engaging in compulsive exercise at the same time is at even greater risk of serious medical complications. 
People running up stairs

What are the warning signs?

If someone is exercising even when they are sick or injured, and they get distressed or anxious if they aren’t able to exercise or prioritises exercise above other parts of life, or they develop restrictive or rigid attitudes towards food, they may be developing an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise. 
If they are exercising multiple times a day, or seem to be unhappy with their progress, these can also be warning signs. Sometimes people engaging in compulsive exercise may have a poor or skewed body image, where they have negative perception of their own body – this can also be something to look out for. 

How can you treat compulsive exercise?

Excessive exercise might be a sign that there is something else going on. A psychologist can help work through the compulsion towards exercise and find healthier and more effective coping strategies. A good exercise physiologist might also help to re-introduce exercise in a healthy way. 

If you think your approach to exercise is having a negative impact on your physical and mental health, go to your GP and talk through your options. If appropriate, they might write you a referral to access specialist services. If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, call the Eating Disorders Helpline (1300 550 236) to find out more. 
Back to top