6 Signs of Compulsive Exercise and When to Get Help

Exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. However, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Overexercising can lead to physical illness and injury. Furthermore, it can take over your mental space like any other addiction. 

Some people enjoy exercising more than others. For example, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with training for an ultra-marathon — people do it every day. However, sometimes, people can cross the line into unhealthy territory.

It may be easier to understand compulsive exercise if you think about other types of addiction. For instance, many people drink alcohol with no problems — but some become hooked to the point where drinking and obtaining booze takes over their lives. 

Therein lies the rub. Feeling out of control is among the first and foremost compulsive exercise symptoms. Some people become dismayed when they miss their routine. However, workout addicts could fly into a panic or resort to extreme measures like going for a run in negative-degree weather during a 4 a.m. blizzard to get their “fix.” 

How can you know when it’s time to get help? Consider the following six compulsive exercise signs and symptoms. 

1. You Experience Lower Back Pain From Working Out 

Lifting too-heavy weights or using bad form can result in acute injuries. Most of these clear up within six weeks without medical attention — rest and over-the-counter remedies do the trick. However, chronic pain goes beyond this time, disrupting your daily activities and overall quality of life. 

Pay attention if you try to push through lower back pain from working out or give in to your body’s need to recover. Most doctors don’t recommend extended bed rest for minor back injuries, as remaining sedentary can cause your muscles to tighten, increasing pain. However, you may need to switch to a gentler form of movement until you heal. 

2. Your Compulsive Exercising Leads to an Eating Disorder

Compulsive exercise and eating disorders often go hand in hand. The obsession with physical perfection doesn’t stop at the gym. You may hyperfocus on certain nutrients or severely restrict calorie intake, leading to an eating disorder where you consume next to nothing or snap and give in to the urge to binge. 

You should recognize the signs and symptoms of the following eating disorders and seek help if your training regimen makes you think you’re at risk:

  • Anorexia nervosa: People with this disorder severely restrict their caloric intake. They may also strictly forbid entire categories of food, for example, sugar, white flour or certain fats. Remember that 1,200 calories per day are the minimum threshold for adults to remain healthy, although regular exercisers often need more to fuel their activities. 
  • Bulimia: People with bulimia follow a binge-purge pattern. They may consume as many as 10,000 calories in a single sitting, then attempt to mitigate weight gain by vomiting, using laxatives or engaging in vigorous exercise — or all three. 
  • Binge-eating disorder: People with this disorder binge without the associated purge. It can cause health problems such as insulin resistance and even Type 2 diabetes from poorly controlled blood sugar. It can also lead to weight gain no matter how much you exercise, creating a vicious cycle. You might try to work out more to lose weight, but going to extremes triggers another binge. 

3. You Begin Neglecting Your Responsibilities 

Many compulsive exercise signs and symptoms share a lot in common with other addictions. Workout regimens that threaten the loss of your job or career prospects can impact your future every bit as much as opioid, cocaine or alcohol addiction. 

When should you express concern? Take heed of the following signs: 

  • You call in sick to work to recover from tough workout sessions. 
  • You consistently arrive late or leave early to tend to your exercise regimen. 
  • Your obsession with your workout schedule makes it impossible for you to focus on your work duties. 

Pay attention if your boss gives you a warning or puts you on a performance improvement plan. You may have to decide if your gym time is worth giving up a rewarding career. 

4. Your Workout Schedule Strains Your Relationships 

Another sign of compulsive exercise occurs when you begin skipping your child’s soccer matches to go to the gym. It’s fine to balance your needs with your family’s, but t’s inexcusable to miss every game. 

You could also experience strain in your marriage or partnership. For example, you might not have energy for date night after a 20-mile run or start slacking off on your share of the household chores. Your partner could grow to resent your behavior, and failing to take corrective action could spell the end of your relationship. 

5. You Start Getting Sick More Often 

Exercise improves your immune response in moderate doses. However, excessively vigorous workouts or those lasting longer than an hour can increase your cortisol levels. An excess of this stress hormone promotes inflammation, lowering your defenses. Think of it as your body’s lone fire department trying to fight a hundred blazes at once instead of one or two. 

As a result, you could come down with every bug circulating in the office. Furthermore, you may recover less quickly, particularly if you return to the gym before your body has healed. 

6. You Experience Severe Distress if You Can’t Exercise 

People addicted to alcohol or drugs may steal to support their habit. Compulsive exercisers may head out in unsafe conditions to run or ride their bike when the weather dictates remaining safely indoors. 

It’s one thing to get creative when extreme conditions occur. Who can forget the French man who ran a marathon on his balcony during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic? However, jogging down a dark alley at night in a questionable neighborhood or heading out in a hurricane indicates a need to reconsider your priorities — and get help. 

How to Stop Compulsive Exercise

You might wonder how to stop compulsive exercise if you’re hooked. After all, movement is vital to life. You can’t go cold turkey like you could if addicted to alcohol or drugs. 

Your best bet is to seek the help of a competent therapist. However, if you’re one of the millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans, that advice can seem like a pipe dream. 

Fortunately, you can find support groups online and in person. You might have your best luck with those catered to various eating disorders. The problem is slightly different, but the dynamics are the same — you can’t give up food any more than physical activity. Such organizations can provide coping mechanisms to help you get what you need without going overboard. 

Another way to hold yourself accountable involves using a planner. Sit down each Sunday and schedule your workouts. Aim to stick to World Health Organization guidelines that call for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous movement most days of the week. Put your recovery first — you can always train for a marathon in the future when you feel more in control of how often and how hard you work out. It can also help to remember that everything is temporary and there is always hope

Signs of Compulsive Exercise and When to Get Help

Exercise provides multiple benefits for your physical and mental health. However, going too hard transforms this pastime from helpful to harmful. 

Remain aware of the signs of compulsive exercise and know when to get help. With time, you can balance your need for physical activity with all the other aspects of your gloriously complete life.


Beth, the content manager and Managing Editor at Body+Mind, is well-respected in the fitness, nutrition and mental health spaces. In her spare time, Beth enjoys going for runs with her dog and trying out new recipes.

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