Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise

By PJ Heusted

Sometimes people wake up in the middle of the night because they need to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. They might try to fall back asleep, but they can’t ignore whatever woke them up in the first place. Eventually they get up, get that glass of water, and crawl back into bed. But what if the thing that woke you up wasn’t just the need for a drink of water — what if it was a sudden and compulsive need to exercise? 

Compulsive exercise isn’t always waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to sleep until you go for a run or do sit-ups on the bedroom floor. For some people, it is going to the gym and exercising until they physically cannot continue. For others, it is feelings of intense guilt or anxiety when unable to work out. There is a difference between being dedicated to a workout routine and being unable to function normally without exercise. Compulsive exercise is, at the core, an uncontrolled desire for physical activity. 

Photo by Angel Martinez

There are plenty of people who can maintain a healthy relationship with exercise that involves a regular workout routine or schedule. In fact, these people may feel upset if they miss a workout or have to alter their routine; that doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a problem with exercise. The primary difference between having a defined exercise regime and having an unhealthy need to exercise is the ability to function without it. Similar to most addictive behaviors, the problem isn’t partaking in the activity; it is in the inability to stop.

While compulsive exercising in and of itself isn’t defined as a mental illness, it is often linked to eating disorders as the manifestation of a need to purge calories consumed. To people suffering from an eating disorder, specifically a disorder revolving around the restriction of caloric intake, exercise is a way to give oneself permission to eat or to burn off calories that the sufferer feels were excess. An unhealthy relationship with exercise can develop as an extension of the disorder and an alternative to decrease net calories. 

When you’re not only stuck in the cycle of exercising to the point of exhaustion but also afraid to stop, it can feel as though there is no way out. If you try to stop exercising altogether or cut back on your workouts or ignore the guilty feelings about having not exercised, the resulting anxiety can be overwhelming. These feelings feed back into the need to exercise more, and the vicious cycle continues. 

It is possible to break the cycle and to, in a way, overcome this sort of addiction. The recovery process, and the relationship with exercise as a whole, is different for everyone, but it starts with fixing the relationship you have with exercise. You shouldn’t view exercising as a chore or a way to give yourself permission to eat, nor should exercise be a negative aspect of your life. Being active is important to stay healthy, but letting activity dominate your mental health can do significantly more harm than good. Changing the way that you perceive exercise can help establish a healthy relationship with it. For me, this was changing the type of exercise I was doing. Going to a traditional gym was the root of my unhealthy habits, and I had to look outside the box for ways to stay active without falling into a destructive mindset.

If you feel like you or someone you know has developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise or is losing weight at an unhealthy rate, please consider reaching out for support either through Colorado College’s counseling center or the National Eating Disorder Association. It may not seem like a problem until it’s too late.

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