Compulsive Exercise: When and Why Is It Too Much?

A big thank you to our guest blogger Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, President of NutriFit Sport Therapy, for sharing her insight into compulsive exercise: how to spot it, the damage it can cause, and how to create a mindful and positive exercise experience. To learn more from Page and NutriFit, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Many of us have been influenced by the diet and exercise obsessed culture and have been pushed to an extreme to over-exercise. But, for many, they are not aware that their exercise routines are abnormally excessive. For many of us, we choose exercise as a coping tool for stress and feeling overwhelmed. Many of my clients report decreases in anxiety when over-exercising, yet do not realize that they are hurting their bodies and creating imbalance in their lives in other ways.

You may be struggling with over-exercise if:

  • You have to exercise every day
  • You are consumed by the need to exercise and are upset when you miss a session
  • Depressed, irritable, and anxious when forced to stop
  • You are always thinking about calorie-burning from exercise
  • Your responsibilities and relationships suffer or friends, family, and work take a backseat to exercise
  • You develop physical problems such as muscle tension and soreness, decreased appetite, and constipation and you continue to train at the same intensity
  • You continue to exercise even when it is medically, vocationally, and socially contraindicated

Our society does not openly discuss the side effects of exercise obsession. Here are some physical and psychological consequences to compulsive exercise that are medically significant, may require medical attention, and can cause permanent damage if left untreated or unaddressed:

Physical Side Effects

  • Stress fractures
  • Tendonitis
  • Damaged bones, joints, tendons and ligaments
  • Irregular menstruation/amenorrhea
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

Psychological Side Effects

  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Self-worth measured only in terms of performance
  • Abandoned relationships
  • Damaged career
  • Lower grades in school
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation

What can you do to set reasonable limits on your exercise and develop and more normalized and balanced movement routine:

  • Allow at least 2 rest days per week
  • Do not exceed one hour cardio sessions
  • Consider alternating cardio and strengthening sessions on alternating days
  • Go to a smaller or different gym where less equipment is available or one where your exercise equipment of choice is not available
  • Slowly step down your program by decreasing duration and frequency and changing mode
  • Try cross training with varying activities
  • Consider a personal trainer to help you maintain healthy boundaries
  • Join classes that are led by exercise leaders – aerobic dance, stretching, jazz, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, etc.
  • Ask a friend or family member to exercise with you to help with containment
  • Give your exercise shoes to someone else, even if it is just temporarily until ready to approach your routine more reasonably
  • Consider an alternative, less physically demanding sport or activity
  • Try a low-impact activity such as playing golf and using a cart or an exercise with natural conformity, such as yoga
  • Do not work in or spend extra time at or near a gym
  • Do not wake up early to allow time to exercise, but also set a limit on how much sleep you get every night
  • Vary your routine and include more “fun” activities as alternatives, such as biking,climbing , boating, canoeing, kayaking, rollerblading, camping, etc.
  • If you have chosen over-exercise as a way of dealing with stress, consider exploring why you are choosing to over-exercise, through journaling or therapy, and what other healthier ways you can choose to manage your stress

If you feel you struggle with over-exercise to an extreme, consider reaching out for guidance and support to a psychotherapist, registered dietitian, or certified strength trainer who have experience working with exercise addiction and over-exercise. The following organizations may be helpful in finding a certified professional that may be a good fit for you: