So many people come into my office not just dealing with compulsive eating issues, but with compulsive exercise issues.

But how do you know when exercise is compulsive rather than just healthy?

Ask yourself these questions:

1.)Do you get upset or anxious if you can’t exercise every single day?

2.)Do you forgo social invitations in order to exercise?

3.)Do you make sure that you always exercise on vacations or trips away?

4.)Do you exercise when you’re sick or injured?

5.)Do you exercise past the point of exhaustion, to where you feel like you just can’t go anymore, but you continue to?

6.)Do you use exercise to compensate for the amount that you’ve eaten? For instance, do you count the calories that you’ve eaten, then try to exercise off the same amount of calories?

7.)Do you have overtraining syndrome? Symptoms include:

  • Getting sick often
  • Night Sweats
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic Soreness and Joint Inflammation
  • Injuries
  • Headaches
  • Waking up too early

If you said yes to one of these, you’re might be compulsive with exercise and if you said yes to more than one, there’s a very high probability that you  are a compulsive exerciser.  As with any eating disorder, compulsive exercise can be extremely dangerous. There is of course the possibility of severe injury or heart attack if you completely ignore your bodily cues and sensations for overdoing it. “No pain no gain” is a phrase that was coined by Jane Fonda during her exercise guru years, however, Jane Fonda also openly admitted to having an eating disorder. So that concept was very ED driven.

Besides physical symptoms, the psychological toll that compulsive exercise has is significant. As with food, obsessing about exercise pulls people away from their lives. It can create obsession as well as anxiety and depression if one is unable to engage in their compulsive behavior.

  • Daily exercise is important and necessary for overall health. However, if you are sick, it is more important to stay in bed and nurture yourself than to exercise. Exercising will make you sicker. This is about relearning how to treat your body with respect and give it what it needs. If you have the flu, a five mile run certainly is not what you need. What you need is bed, hot tea, soup, sleep and a good book.
  • You don’t need to be running like a banshee every single day. It’s okay to alternate hard workouts with slower, less taxing workouts, such as aqua aerobics, or a leisurely walk through your neighborhood, or a Hatha Yoga class, or a Restorative Yoga class, or  just playing at the playground with your kids or your friends kids or kids you’re babysitting for, or even going out dancing with your friends.
  • Rejecting your friends for exercise is the same as isolating with an eating disorder. You can become so incredibly obsessed with exercise, that your life is no longer your own. It’s only about making sure that you get your fix. It’s important to remain social and to get support from friends and people around you. It’s very easy to isolate into an obsession. But all obsessions and disorders grow and thrive in isolation. As soon as support is given, they can be tamed.
  • It’s okay to take a day off of exercise just because you don’t feel like doing it. Like food, exercise needs to be something that keeps you healthy, not something that you obsess on and that makes you sick. All obsessions have the propensity to take over your life. Then, your life is no longer your own. You cease to make your own decisions, the obsession makes it for you. Ask yourself, “am I making the decision to exercise, or is it the obsession that’s driving it?”
  • If you suspect that you are addicted to exercise, and it’s hurting you physically or emotionally, please tell someone.  Many people don’t understand that  exercise can become harmful. So make sure that the person who you are talking to is safe and open to understanding what you might be going through. Talk to a therapist who specializes in treating Eating Disorders.
  • Figure out a plan that works for you. Try to take some days off and see what that’s like for you and what kind of emotions and fears and anxieties come up for you. Don’t try to run away from them or exercise them away, but write about them, talk about them.  You won’t gain weight or get out of shape from skipping one day of exercise. That’s just ED (the eating disorder) talking to you.

This is about integrating health and healthy ways of being in the world rather than being a slave to food, body image, and exercise and diets.

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  • Michelle

    Very good info! Although I don’t have a problem with exercising to much I do have a problem with exercising to little. I am so self conscious to go out side and walk!

  • It can be hard for people to make a determination about this, since people are so rewarded in our society for exercising regularly and with enthusiasm. Just as being thin is congratulated, with not much thought put into whether or not a person became and maintains a small body due to an eating disorder, a compulsive exerciser can hide what’s going on, even from herself or himself.

    • Ashley

      I look normal maybe even a little over weight now thanks to binge eating, but am still a compulsive exerciser. Well i am recovering.

  • Absolutely. And I think it’s important to note that compulsive exercisers come in all shapes and sizes.

  • You make a good point about them coming in all sizes. Bodybuilder sizes, so-called “regular” sizes, people who look too thin, etc. I think most people aren’t familiar with the term “exercise bulimia”, as they believe one only purges through throwing up.

  • Ashley

    This is right on. I am recovering from Compulsive Exercise. People say it must be nice to be addicted to exercise, but it is just like any other drug and can ruin your life. It controls you and although you eventually learn/ your body quits on you, the after affect can be seen forever. (Knee problems, if bad enough organ problems…) It takes over your life and you become isolated and the only thing that matters to you is that you are up and the first one to the gym, to get in every sec you can before work, t then after work go “easy” activity before you hit the bed and do it all over again. Time for friends not unless they want to hike with you, this only comes after you 6 mile run right when you wake up.