Excessive Exercise Can Be a Risk Factor for Disordered Eating

Lady doing compulsive exercise

It is not uncommon for those with an eating disorder diagnosis to display addictive personality traits. While this has been considered in relation to the disordered behaviors themselves as well as drug and alcohol use, there are many other ways these addictive tendencies can manifest, one of these being exercise addiction.

A study recently published in the Eating and Weight Disorders Journal set out to learn more about how excessive exercising behaviors are related to disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.

The study examined data from 2,140 individuals over nine studies that occurred in the US, UK, Australia, and Italy [1].

The first study to look at exercise addictions in individuals with and without eating disorder characteristics, it ultimately determined that those with eating disorder characteristics 3.7 times more likely to suffer from exercise addiction than those without [1].

One of the authors of the study, Mike Trott, asserts “Our study shows that displaying signs of an eating disorder increases the chance of an unhealthy relationship with exercise significantly, and this can have negative consequences, including mental health issues and injury [1].”

Trott continues, “It is not uncommon to want to improve our lifestyles by eating healthier and doing more exercise, particularly at the start of the year. However, it is important to moderate this behavior and not fall victim to ‘crash diets’ or anything that eliminates certain foods entirely, as these can easily lead to eating disorder [1].”

What the information means varies from person-to-person based on their relationship with the eating disorder world. Those that struggle with an eating disorder may have experienced firsthand the way that exercise can become dangerous.

Often, those with disordered eating thoughts or behaviors use exercising as another method of purging calories. What began as an already harmful behavior of engaging in exercise to alter the body then escalates further until it becomes out of control and can result in severe physical harm.

“This group has been shown to suffer from serious medical conditions as a result of excessive exercise, such as fractures, increased rates of cardiovascular disease in younger patients, and increased overall mortality [1].”

Woman working out in gym battling exercise addiction and Eating DisordersThis is where this information is crucial for medical and mental health professionals to know. What appears to be an avid passion for fitness and health can actually be a risk factor for an eating disorder or a much darker symptom of a larger and possibly deadly disorder.

Anyone with a loved one that struggles with disordered eating thoughts or behaviors or their relationship to their body, weight, shape, or size should also consider this information.

It is not uncommon for those in recovery to experience a battle with exercise addiction, as the disordered mind is cunning and attempts to find manipulative ways of coming out. The individual may consider they are doing well because they are no longer restricting or purging. However, it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of excessive exercise.

Our society is obsessed with the concepts of “health,” “fitness,” and “wellness,” and this creates a dangerous connection between worth and value and appearance.

Because of this, an individual engaging in excessive exercise or not nourishing themselves to the degree they need considering their exercise can fly under-the-radar.

If you interact with anyone that struggles with a history of disordered eating thoughts or behaviors, keep in mind where their risk lies with this and create a conversation around fitness and movement that champions moving your body while also caring for it.


[1] Trott, M. et al. (2020). A comparative meta-analysis of the prevalence of exercise addiction in adults with and without indicated eating disorders. Eating and Weight Disorders.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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.

Published April 15, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 15, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC