When Exercise Turns Compulsive

Similar to eating a healthy diet, being fit and exercising regularly attracts praise and admiration in our society. All too often, however, these lifestyle changes can shift from being mindful, balanced, and healthy to being all-consuming, obsessive, and harmful.

It is important to understand the intent or motivation to exercise. Exercise that is completed to focus on altering weight, and shape, or “burning calories” might be of concern. Instead, ideally one would focus on the benefits that come with exercise such as improved energy, mood, and sleep. Exercise should be enjoyable and energizing, not completely exhausting or painful. In a healthy relationship with exercise an individual should be able to vary the intensity of workouts, meaning that training can occur at a lower intensity some of the time and more intensely at others. Someone who is compulsively exercising may only know and exhibit one gear—high intensity, or near maximum effort—during workouts. They may struggle with a fierce adherence to rigid exercise routines, whereas those who exercise mindfully, can be more flexible. For example, if it’s cold and raining outside, a balanced exerciser may decide to skip a run and opt for a cup of tea and a good book by the fire. Conversely, a compulsive exerciser will go out in the cold and rain, perhaps in the early morning hours when it’s still dark out, to run miles and miles anyway. While following a balanced diet, an individual who exercises moderately will often see incremental performance gains, whereas an individual who exercises compulsively will likely experience a decline in performance over time.

Signs That You Have a Balanced Relationship to Exercise 

  • You are able to listen to your body and respond appropriately. This might result in feeling up to moving some days and feeling as though rest is needed on other days.
  • You participate in activities with internal goals like the expectation of fun versus external goals such as weight loss.
  • You see your exercise as flexible, meaning that you might need to adjust your workouts when school, social, or family commitments arise—for example, you don’t expect to workout four days a week during finals.
  • You allow your body to rest, knowing that rest will not diminish your desire to exercise on other days.
  • You eat enough food to adequately fuel your level of activity.
  • Exercise changes with the seasons (for example, in the rainy season you may increase yoga and decrease soccer).

Signs That You Have an Unbalanced Relationship to Exercise 

  • The gym is on fire but you have two minutes left on the treadmill, so you stay on.
  • You feel anxious if you don’t get to do your workout on a particular day.
  • You think of working out as a way to make up for what you ate.
  • You work out even when you are sick, injured, or tired.
  • You are working out to delay physical changes to your body.
  • You work out for external goals only (physical appearance).
  • You work out in odd places at odd times.
  • You don’t eat enough for the energy you are expending.
  • Your family or friends have expressed concern that you are exercising too much.
  • You force yourself to exercise even when you do not feel like doing so.
  • You often miss out on attending social or family gatherings as a result of your workouts.

To assess if you have an unbalanced relationship with exercising, feel free to check out the Compulsive Exercise Test from Almost Anorexic. If you find that several of these warning signs apply to you, it is recommended that you seek professional help to better understand your relationship with exercise and to explore how you might be able to be more flexible and spontaneous.

A summary of how mindful exercise differs from compulsive exercise can be seen below.  Thank you to Kate Bennett, PsyD, Sport Psychologist (2017), who has give us permission to use this in our book.

  Mindful/Healthy Exercise Compulsive Exercise
GOAL: To challenge oneself and engage in a variety of activities that are enjoyable and energizing


To alter one’s appearance and/or negative discomfort


MINDSET: Work hard/rest hard


Move to move/rest is unnecessary
PACE: Athletes have many gears, including very slow, and they use all of them


One gear only: fast/intense
ROLE: Exercise is only one part of identity and it is enjoyable Exercise is the ONLY form of identity and activity is mandatory
APPROACH: Flexible and adaptable


APPROACH: Curious/open to new information


APPROACH: Resourceful, driven, and rational


Compulsive and anxious
INJURY: Modify due to illness and injury


Train through illness and injury

Copyright @How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder 2018

Copyright@No Weigh!! A Teen’s Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom 2018

The above blog was adapted from “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder:  A Simple, Plate-by-Plate Approach to Reestablishing a Healthy Relationship with Food,” and “No Weigh!!! A Teen’s Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.

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