Regular physical activity is an important tool to help you manage your health. Aerobic exercise can improve your cardiovascular system, while resistance training helps to strengthen your muscles and improve balance. It’s rewarding to see progress, but sometimes we can go too far.
Compulsive exercise addiction needs to be satisfied, no matter the cost. Tell-tale signs might be someone who continues to exercise despite an injury, or prioritizing a workout instead of sleeping or eating.
Overexercising can take a toll on your body in the short and long term. It increases your risk of dehydration and injury and can be mentally taxing. This article will give you ideas on how to stop compulsive exercise addiction and adopt a gentler approach to physical activity.
What is Compulsive Exercise
Compulsive behaviors can become obsessive. They may develop into a ritualistic practice that must be completed the same way every time. If the ritual is done out of order or not fully completed, there is a real fear that something negative will happen. It’s not uncommon to see compulsive behaviors in healthy activities, such as exercise. Some people can be terrified that their health will decline if they skip a workout.
Overcoming these fears can take time, and guidance from a healthcare professional is recommended. While trying to stop compulsive exercise, be kind to yourself as you redefine your relationship with physical activity and health.
Common Warning Signs of Compulsive Behaviors
Sometimes, people who suffer from exercise addiction are praised for their stamina and dedication to their fitness routine. “You were already on your feet today for eight hours. I can’t believe you’re squeezing in a workout too!”
It is not unusual for a healthy habit to receive praise, even if it’s pushing past the beneficial window and into a danger zone. Some signs could indicate compulsive exercise addiction:1
- Lack of control: a history of unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop exercising for a certain time, even while injured.
- Reduction in other activities: skipping events like work or social obligations because of exercise.
- Seeking a buzz: exercise releases endorphins or happy hormones. Once you are fit enough to meet a goal, you may push further to achieve a new buzz.
- Withdrawal: the absence of exercise can preoccupy all thoughts, paired with guilt for not working out.
- Time: thinking about working out or planning to dedicate more time to future workouts.
The major health risk of compulsive exercise is the elevated chance of injury. The risk is twofold: the inadequate time between workouts prevents your body from properly healing, and the more tired you become, the harder it is to move safely through exercises.
Think about a time you tweaked your back after helping a friend move. There were probably signs you should have stopped lifting boxes ten minutes earlier, but pushing past the pain to complete a physical task has risks.
Exercising when you don’t feel well can make you dehydrated and further weaken your immune response. In these moments, you are the most vulnerable to germs and bacteria. A minor illness, like the common cold, can drag on.
Exercising and Disordered Eating
Many eating disorders manifest guilt and shame after consuming calories. Different purging behaviors can develop to “resolve” these negative emotions after eating. Some people may attempt to purge these calories through exercise.2
They will walk, run, or do whatever form of movement to try and burn calories they’ve recently consumed. In some cases, they could be afraid that if they stop exercising, they might gain weight.
If you have ever had these thoughts, reach out to a doctor and a registered dietitian trained in disordered eating. Managing these thoughts and behaviors is important for your long-term health and well-being.
How To Stop Compulsive Exercise
You could set yourself up for success by reengineering your environment, social settings, and internal dialogue regarding exercise.
Unfollow Social Media Accounts
If you log into social media daily, you may want to unfollow fitness and exercise accounts, at least for now.
At one point, they might have been inspiring, but while recovering from compulsive exercise habits, they might be triggering. It is harder to make changes when you constantly view people who exercise all the time!
Take Small Steps
You do not have to overhaul your exercise routine overnight. Break up your goal into smaller and more manageable chunks of time.
Start with a week first. Once you are exercising less for one week, repeat it for another week. It can be helpful to focus on the day-by-day instead of looking too far ahead.
Surround Yourself with Love
Surrounding yourself with family and friends who love and root for you is extremely important. Changing exercise habits is hard, and some days you may need a boost of morale and support.
Schedule a check-in every day or every week, and don’t skip out! Even a five-minute chat can help you get back on track.
Find New Coping Strategies
What else can you do that will help you feel good but won’t put your health at risk? Take time to brainstorm ideas that will soothe you when you feel antsy, anxious, or whatever emotion has been driving you to exercise excessively.
Everyone needs a healthy outlet to cope with unpleasant emotions. Hopefully, after some trial and error, you can find new ways to manage these feelings. Don’t give up if you can’t find the right fit immediately; it might take some time and a handful of new experiences until you find something right.
Nourish Can Help
Changing your relationship with exercise can take time. A nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian, can help you examine your relationship with fitness and help you understand if you are exercising too much. In recovery, you will need optimal nutrition and high-quality food to help your body heal.
- Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International journal of environmental research and public health, 8(10), 4069–4081.
- Lydecker, J. A., Shea, M., & Grilo, C. M. (2018). Driven exercise in the absence of binge eating: Implications for purging disorder. The International journal of eating disorders, 51(2), 139–145.
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