Excessive Exercise and Eating Disorders

Woman struggling with muscle dysphoria

Contributor: Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

Individuals who engage in regular exercise often receive validation from friends and loved ones. Additionally, the pursuit of “physical fitness” is often glorified in our society.

While exercise can have a variety of health benefits when it is done in moderation-excessive exercise can be incredibly detrimental for an individual’s mental and physical health. Further, excessive exercise is often a component of eating disorders-however the denial can run deep as often individuals in our culture praise these “extreme” fitness behaviors.

The Role of Excessive Exercise

Excessive exercise has been demonstrated to play a role in both the development and maintenance of eating disorders. [1] Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and body dysmorphic disorder are the three most common disorders that are associated with excessive exercise. [2]

Some studies have found that as many as 75% of individuals struggling with anorexia and bulimia use excessive exercise in attempts to “purge” or reduce anxiety. [3]

But how can an individual tell if their exercise habits have begun to cross over into compulsive/excessive exercise? According to Marina Bejamin, Ph.d., some of the hallmarks of excessive exercise include the following:

  • You feel that bad things will occur if you don’t work out.
  • You have a perfectionistic attitude towards your body and exercise.
  • You workout despite illness, fatigue, or injury.
  • You start to set goals that are unattainable.
  • You ignore friendships or other hobbies due to it interfering with your workout routine. [4]

Exercising to Excess

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to “exercise to excess.” The negative effects of over exercising can be both psychological and physical. Some of the potential implications of over-exercise include the following: insomnia, depression, fatigue, anxiety, muscular atrophy, arthritis, bone fractures, damage to cartilage and ligaments, and may also cause females to lose their periods (amenorrhea).

Man exercising to exhaustion Further, social isolation and a deterioration of significant relationships is also a common negative consequence for an individual struggling with compulsive over-exercise. [5]  Additionally, for individuals for are struggling with eating disorders, excessive exercise is associated with poorer quality of life, worse eating disorder symptoms, and extended inpatient eating disorder treatment. [6]

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt’s blog exemplified this point when they stated, “Often, the same messages that promote extreme exercise also encourage people to ignore their body’s cues – to push past pain and exhaustion in order to reach goals.

But when you override your body’s need for rest, healing, or even medical attention, it can have long-term negative consequences on health, not to mention on overall fitness and athletic performance.” [7]

No one chooses to struggle with compulsive exercise. If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder and compulsive exercise, it is not your fault that you are dealing with this. However, full healing from eating disorders and compulsive exercise is entirely possible. At the end of your life, will you really be reflecting on the hours spent on the treadmill, or the meals and events that you missed spending with family members and friends?

Seeking Treatment

Treatment for excessive exercise often entails a cognitive and behavioral approach. It is critical that individuals who are struggling with excessive exercise work to gradually decrease the amount/and or intensity of their exercise.

Rope Exercise-828764_640x427Healthy exercise is flexible, varied, and enjoyable-whereas compulsive exercise is often rigid and inflexible. If you or a loved one is struggling with compulsive exercise-it is critical that you reach out for help and support from a trained professional.

Katherine Schreiber, an individual who overcome exercise addiction, stated,

“Changing my habits was arduous. The first day I didn’t do cardio, I felt like my skin was crawling. But, over time, I realized that an off day here or there, a scaling back on intensity and time spent at the gym when I was tired or sick, made me feel stronger—and gave me more energy to engage in other activities outside the gym.” [8]

Schreiber explained, “I pursued other passions—writing, comedy, and spending much more time with family and friends. And along the way, I met someone who fell in love with me not just for my body but for my mind—enlightening me to the possibility that I was worth so much more than the miles I logged or the weight I could lift.” [9]

Jennifer Rollin photoAbout the author: Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a therapist, body-image activist, and writer who specializes in working with adolescents, body image concerns, survivors of trauma, and mood disorders. Jennifer is a blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, as well as a contributing writer for Eating Disorder Hope. For body-positive, self-love, inspiration, “like” her on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW.


[1]: Carcieri, E. (2015). Excessive exercise and eating disorders. Retrieved from: http://www.mirror-mirror.org/excessive-exercise.htm
[2]:  Too much of a good thing: Compulsive exercise can have devastating results. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.crchealth.com/find-a-treatment-center/texas-treatment-information/good-thing-compulsive-exercise-devastating-results/
[3]: Exercise Addiction or Activity Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.montenido.com/diagnostic_criteria/exercise_addiction
[4]: Benjamen, M. (2016). When working out shifts from a healthy habit to an obsession. Retrieved from: http://www.anad.org/news/when-working-out-shifts-from-a-healthy-habit-to-obsession/
[5]: http://www.eatingdisordersonline.com/explain/negative-effects-exercise.php
[6]: Carcieri, E. (2015). Excessive exercise and eating disorders. Retrieved from: http://www.mirror-mirror.org/excessive-exercise.htm
[7]: Negative effects of over-exercising. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://eatingdisorder.org/blog/2013/07/more-more-more-the-dangers-of-excessive-exercise/
[8]: Schreiber, K. (2015). How one woman overcame her exercise addiction. Retrieved from: http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/how-one-woman-overcame-her-exercise-addiction
[9]: Schreiber, K. (2015). How one woman overcame her exercise addiction. Retrieved from: http://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/how-one-woman-overcame-her-exercise-addiction

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 17, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.