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How to Stop Compulsive Exercise

How do you stop compulsive exercise, and exercising out of necessity vs desire? What are compulsive exercise symptoms? How can you tell if you’re addicted to exercise?

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Exercising to feel the difference is one of the principles of intuitive eating.

I talk with clients about this, especially since I have many runners coming in to see me.

Movement often comes up in nutrition counseling, and I like to evaluate whether someone is exercising out of enjoyment or if it seems more like an exercise addiction or obsessive compulsion. 

If it’s the latter, you may be wondering how to stop compulsive exercise.

Iphone, headphones and sneakers on wooden floor before exercise

The idea of intuitive movement isn’t anything novel, but in today’s diet culture day and age, it becomes more and more important.

This is toxic diet culture is harmful.

If you want to read Hope’s story of exercise addiction, it details her difficult journey.

I’m not qualified to give exercise prescriptions since I’m not a personal trainer. 

Instead, the reason it comes up is that I want to know about a client’s relationship to exercise.

How do they view it? Why do they do it? Is it enjoyable?

What does an exercise addition look like?

First of all, let’s talk about some unhealthy reasons to exercise. 

Girl running with text overlay | How to tell if addicted to exercise

What Is Compulsive Exercise?

According to the National Eating Disorders’ Association, compulsive exercise is any exercise that may occur at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or exercise that significantly interferes with other important activities.

And I would also add, exercise addiction also interferes with relationships. 

Exercise addiction can be a compulsive exercise eating disorder, or at least be, signs of an eating disorder. 

Over Exercising Symptoms

Here are some of the over exercising symptoms you may be experiencing.

  • Intense anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of guilt, and/or distress if one is unable to exercise
  • Feeling discomfort or angst with rest or inactivity
  • Maintenance of excessive, rigid exercise regimen despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury
  • Using exercise to manage emotions
  • Exercise is used as a means of purging (needing to “get rid of” or “burn off” calories)
  • You use exercise as permission to eat (more on unconditional permission to eat)
  • You feel the need to hide or be secretive about exercising
  • Exercise that can lead to overtraining
  • Withdrawal from friends and family or skipping social events or opportunities to exercise

It’s important to know that many/some of these symptoms also overlap with relative energy deficiency (aka not eating enough calories or energy for performance). 

This can lead to underfueling for workouts and for sport.  

How to Know If You Are Overtraining

For the most part, exercise is highlighted in our society, rather than looked upon as dangerous.

We often don’t know the consequences of over exercising or compulsive exercise disorder until it’s well beyond dangerous. 

Exercise can cross into dangerous territory if it becomes an obsession or a tool to compensate for or validate our eating habits.

Any of the above can be over exercising symptoms.

girl in pink tank top running around track grabbing her hamstring

You are overtraining if you can’t take a rest day. Or you hyperfocus on calories burned, which can then translate to calories eaten.

While many people may be overexercising to prevent weight gain, the opposite can happen if the body is chronically in a stressed state. 

But, there are many other serious side effects. 

Health consequences and dangers of over exercising:

  • Never feeling like you can recovery from workouts or persistent muscle soreness
  • Persistent fatigue and sluggishness
  • Increased instances of injury
  • Altered resting heart rate (from what is normal to you)
  • Bone density loss (osteopenia or osteoporosis) 
  • Loss of menstrual cycle or abnormal menstruation 
  • Female Athlete Triad (in women)
  • Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
  • Chronic bone & joint pain
  • Increased frequency of illness & upper respiratory infections

As you can see, too much exercise (especially in relativity to not eating enough) can be very damaging to our bodies. 

How To Stop Compulsive Exercise

Generally, over exercising or an addiction to exercise requires a holistic approach to stop compulsive exercise.

It’s likely due to more than “just” the exercise, whether it’s not wanting to feel emotions or face hard situations, seeking control over food, or something else. 

When thinking how to prevent overtraining, we usually have to go quite a bit downstream first.

Why are you overtraining in the first place?

board with sticky notes on it

When working with patients who suffer from over exercising symptoms, I always refer them to a therapist and possibly even an eating disorder specialist to dig deeper.

Especially if I sense some orthorexia and exercise addiction together. 

Sometimes, it may be necessary to stop exercising completely for a period of time until one can work on his/her relationship to exercise and define the intentions around it. 

I have found that working on intuitive movement, which can overlap with intuitive eating, is very very helpful. 

Avoid Overtraining With Intuitive Exercise

As with anything, intention matters.

Knowing WHY you are exercising is crucial with intuitive exercise.

The goal of exercise should never be to burn calories or cancel out food choices.

Many people who have compulsive exercise tendencies are overtraining, which can be damaging to physical, mental and emotional health.

Girl high fiving while doing exercise workout

Instead, intuitive exercise should be about feeling good. It is possible to balance intuitive eating with exercise

To me, the bottom line question to ask is, are you doing this because you want to be doing this, or are you doing it because you feel like you have to be doing it?

If it’s the former, great! You are probably engaging in intuitive exercise. 

If it’s the latter, exercise (or that type of exercise) may not be serving you right now.

Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t serve you in the future, but you want to first work on repairing your relationship with exercise.

Signs of Intuitive Exercise

Exercise shouldn’t confuse or dysregulate our mind and body.

If your body wants rest, forcing it to exercise is not enhancing the mind-body connection. 

woman doing inchworm

If your choice of movement is not boosting your endorphins, putting you in a good mood, and enhancing the connection between your mood, mind and body, then it’s probably time to try something else.

However, if you find that exercise helps you be in tune with your body, great!

Here are some positive signs of intuitive exercise.

  • You can vary your workout based on how you feel (fatigue, soreness, tightness)
  • You think more clearly after exercise
  • After exercise, you feel more like yourself 
  • You enjoy the things that go along with exercise (social connection, achieving non-aesthetic goals)
  • You’re able to properly fuel your exercise (Use these examples of what to eat before running in the morning!)

If you’re nodding your head to the above examples, great! You’re probably exercising for the right reasons. 

girl holding up peace signs while running

Questions to Ask Yourself to Avoid Overtraining

These are some signs of overexercising and symptoms of overtraining. Again, intention matters.

  • Do you feel guilty if you don’t exercise every day?
  • Do you feel anxious and uncomfortable if you’re not moving a certain amount?
  • Does your exercise plan change based on what you ate or didn’t eat?
  • Are you trying to burn more calories because you ate dessert last night, or more food yesterday in general?
  • Are you eating more food after a longer workout? You still need to eat even if you’re not hungry after a workout!
  • Do you have no desire to exercise, but you still find yourself pulling up to the gym (and dreading it) or fitting in that run despite the fact that you hate running?

Just as our food and calorie needs vary by the day, so should our exercise. We should consider the “gray” parts and nuance of exercise. 

There are so many forms of movement available to our bodies, similar to the abundance and variety of food choices.

Intuitive exercise simply means choosing the form of exercise that serves you in the moment.

men jumping up in the air on the beach

Sometimes, it means choosing none at all.

Engaging in a variety of forms of exercise is good for us, rather than relying on one type alone.

If we only look at exercise as a vehicle for burning calories or a way to eat more food, then we’re missing nearly all of the benefits of exercise.

Exercise is a stressor on our bodies.

In some situations, that stress can be a positive thing. In other situations, it can contribute to an already stressed out body and can exacerbate symptoms, both mentally and physically.

Compulsive exercise can increase the risk of injury, increase stress hormones, and cause more mental anxiety and a poorer mood.

When we exercise out of enjoyment, however, we decrease stress hormones, increase our mood, amp up our immunity and help promote better sleep.

stressed man sitting and thinking

Intuitive Exercise is Flexible

For example, maybe it looks like trying a new workout with a friend for the social aspect of it and the enjoyment of moving your body in a new way.

Or, going out for a run by yourself because you value the alone time and running makes you feel happier and stronger.

girl running on trail with sunglasses on

If you’re not enjoying exercise, yet you continue to do it, it’s causing a further disconnect from that mind-body connection.

Like time with friends, or alone time, exercise that you enjoy fills your cup. It rejuvenates you – most of the time.

At times, it can lead to exhaustion, but chronic exhaustion is a sign that something is not right.

If you’re always feeling depleted and not like your old self, it may be time to reevaluate your exercise plan.

girl sitting on gym floor with free weights

In short, being too rigid with exercise can actually worsen our mood (rather than lifting it up), cause more illnesses and decrease our immunity.

Overexercise can lead to more injuries and biological problems in our bodies (stress fractures, delayed recovery, extreme fatigue, insomnia and hypothalamic amenorrhea, to name a few).

Use Rest to Prevent Overtraining

When considering your exercise plan, remember that it’s not black and white.

It doesn’t have to be – even if you’re in marathon training.

Will you not even consider a workout if it’s not 45 minutes, an hour, or longer?

There are a plethora of benefits of short bursts of exercise and movement. Can you look at exercise in the gray?

Like intuitive eating, it’s supposed to exercise should be flexible.

girls sitting in exercise class

If you can’t fathom the idea of a rest day or even a half marathon taper, you are overexercising. 

Rest is a positive thing. It helps make future workouts stronger, decreases the risk for injury and illness, and improves our mental capacity.

Sleep is a great form of restorative rest, it’s how we compile memories and things we learned.

Similarly, days off from exercise help make the bones and muscles stronger, as well as flexing our mental strength.

What thoughts and feelings does exercise bring up for you?

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  1. I love how you differentiate this; I think that for a long time I really let exercise be more of a negative stressor and pressured myself to imitate what others did instead of doing what was right for my body. I love the reminder of not making exercise something that is rigid; if it is becoming that then there’s something that’s wrong with your relationship with it. Right now, I’m really treasuring a break off of a lot of running and really loving how weight lifting is helping me get in tune with going slowly, breathing, and truly enjoying the gift of movement from God. Running used to be more of a form of punishment for me especially long runs, but now I truly love running for the sake of the joy and fresh air it brings.

    1. I’m so happy you are tuning in to what your body thinks as joyful right now, Emily. It’s totally okay for that to change over time, too!

  2. I have enjoyed growing in strength and stamina with exercise. I love feeling strong. But I have to find a way to remove the desire to be lean through exercise. And am also trying to challenge my 4:50 am wake up. Do I have to get up that early? Can I be consistent in movement in a way that’s better for my whole health? I love the comraderie I’ve developed at the gym but am questioning now the body comparing and shaming I do while there. Wondering if I need a break from that environment to get my head and intentions in the right place.

    1. Hi Claire! Thanks for sharing your reflection with us. A few questions come up for me…Firstly, the fact that you are even questioning since may be a sign that your body needs a little bit of a break. Maybe it’s worth trying to exercise at another time during the day so you can prioritize more sleep. Are there any other forms of movement that you enjoy? Would movement look and feel different for you if there were no body comparing, shaming, or pressure associated with it?

  3. I am very slowly untangling the connection I have between eating and exercising. I used extreme exercise as a way of ‘undoing’ what I ate. Exercise was my antidote to eating. Do you have any experience with this mindset and maybe some helpful ways to address it?

    1. I actually think it may be worth exploring your relationship to food primarily, and uncoupling food, your body and exercise. Some questions to ask yourself, “Am I doing this exercise because it feels good or because I ‘have’ to based on what I ate? Would my food choices stay the same if I wasn’t exercising?” If it’s the latter, I would recommend learning to look at foods neutrally, a main part of intuitive eating. I also have many posts on intuitive eating here:

  4. I think one thing that’s hard to decipher with exercise is on days where you procrastinate getting out the door. Is it truly because you’re tired or because you’re feeling lazy. I always ask myself if I’ll feel worse later in the day if I don’t run. If the answer is yes then I’m just lazy, if it’s no then it means I need the rest!

    1. I think it’s also important to consider other life circumstances. For example, if you’ve had a busy week workwise, or travel wise and you’ve been feeling stressed or overly tired, then maybe exercise would be exacerbating the fatigue. However, if it’s commonplace to wake up and exercise and you’ve been sleeping well and there are no other risks (illness, injury, compensation for eating, etc), then I think it’s okay to look at it as enjoyment and gathering motivation.