Exercise and Poor Body Image

Woman running a treadmill.

Exercise is important for physical and mental health [1]. But what happens when exercise becomes harmful? Exercise can be damaging physically and emotionally if it becomes abusive [1]. It can be difficult to know if someone is abusing exercise. Here are some signs:


Someone is dependent on exercise when they use it to avoid upsetting emotions. There is a difference in coping with a feeling and avoiding it. Let’s say that someone has a stressful day at work and does yoga later to relax. This is a healthy use of exercise.

This is different than someone who gets into a fight with their parents and exercises as a way to stuff down the anger and avoid talking about the issue. There is a subtle difference in these examples.

It is hard sometimes to tell the difference between healthy and abusive exercise because the intention is important, not just the physical activity. If someone uses exercise to ignore upsetting feelings, that is a red flag [1].


Compulsive exercise is when someone is unable to stop exercising regardless of the consequences [1]. An example of this is someone that ignores their doctor’s recommendation to take a break from physical activity because of an injury.

This may be a sign of compulsive exercise because they were not able to curb the urge to exercise rather than follow a doctor’s recommendations.

Impacts Other Areas of Life

Another sign of abusive exercise is if someone’s relationship with exercise negatively impacts other areas of their life. For example, someone who abuses exercise might do it despite the impact on their relationships or at work or school.

Because of the potential harm that can result from exercise abuse, it’s helpful to be aware of who is more at risk. People with poor body image are more at risk [2]. Body image is the way someone thinks about the way they look. People with negative body image are more likely to abuse exercise to try to change the way their body looks.

woman lacing a running shoe to exerciseAlso, body dissatisfaction increases the risk of mental health issues, including eating disorders [2]. Many people with eating disorders are not satisfied with the shape or size of their bodies. This discontent tends to create a cycle of abusing food and movement to control the way they look. In fact, abusive exercise is often one tell-tale sign of an eating disorder [1].

While it is important to be aware of people with increased risk, it is also worth being aware of the messages that exist in Western culture about exercise and the glorification of thin bodies. What someone is taught about their body can directly impact the way they feel about themselves or how they approach exercise [2].

It is worth reflecting on the relationship you have with exercise. What were you taught about it? What beliefs do you have about training and your body? How does exercise impact your life?

Movement can be fun and a source of physical and emotional pleasure. Physical activity should be a source of nourishment rather than a way to self-harm. Support from a qualified body-positive professional can help someone figuring out if their physical activity is benefiting their overall well-being.

Exercise should play a positive role in someone’s long-term quality of life. Everyone deserves a peaceful relationship with their body. Exercise can be a way to nurture this relationship.


[1] Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M. D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Urbán, R., & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: Symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance use & Misuse, 47(4), 403-417. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/10.3109/10826084.2011.639120

[2] Freire, G.L.M., Rawane da Silva Paulo, J., Alves da Silva, A., Batista, R.P.R., Alves, J.F.N., Andrade do Nascimento Junior, J.R. (2020). Body dissatisfaction, addiction to exercise, and risk behaviour for eating disorders among exercise practitioners. Journal of eating disorders, 8(23),1-9. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00300-9

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

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 August 6, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 6, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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.