Mindful Movement and Recovery for Compulsive Over-Exercise

Woman exercising

Contributor: Heather MacLaren, LPC, R-DMT, GLCMA, ICDVP is a Dance/Movement Therapist and Trauma Specialist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

For many individuals who may struggle with an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and/or binge eating disorder, there can be a negative and harmful relationship with exercise involved.

Generally, training in our culture is something that can be perceived as a negative thing.

Many people may force themselves to go to the gym, run a certain number of minutes or miles on the treadmill, or engage in forms of exercise that feel more like a punishment rather than enjoyment.

This type of mentality with exercise can lead to an abusive relationship with one’s body, becoming especially harmful for a person who may already be struggling with an eating disorder.

Exercise can be abused in order to “purge” after eating, as a method to control weight, or even as a form of punishment.

What is Compulsive Overexercise?

In general, individuals who exercise and spend a significant amount of time at the gym, training, etc. are usually praised and lauded in our society.

It can be difficult to recognize what compulsive exercise is, particularly when intense exercise and movement is encouraged and overemphasized. So how does one know if exercising has become compulsive or even unhealthy?

There are several red flags and risk factors to be aware of should you be concerned that your activity level may be getting out of hand.  Compulsive exercise is typically characterized by an obsession with exercise that interferes with one’s ability to engage in normal, daily activities [1].

For example, a person who exercises compulsively may be missing out on important social functions:

  • Family timeWoman doing yoga on the roof
  • Work
  • Or even neglecting personal responsibilities in order to train or exercise.

A person who exercises compulsively may also continue to do strenuous workouts while injured, sick, or while dealing with other serious medical conditions, which may show an obsessiveness with activity and exercise.

An individual who may be a compulsive exerciser will show feelings of duress or anxiety when they are unable to exercise or if they have skipped a workout.

This anxiety is another indicator that the level of exercise and activity has become obsessive, which can lead to both a dangerous mindset and negative health consequences.

Renegotiating a Relationship With Exercise

A person can struggle with compulsive exercise, whether or not there is an active eating disorder, though an eating disorder can add to the complexities of issues that are involved with compulsive exercising.

In order to heal from compulsive exercise, it is necessary to look at any potential underlying issues that may be related to these behaviors. If there is also an eating disorder involved, making treatment a priority is essential to beginning recovery as well.

In many cases, it may be necessary to work with an eating disorder specialist or healthcare professional who can help you understand the various factors involved with compulsive exercising.

For example, compulsive exercise may be an inadvertent way of avoiding difficult emotions or circumstances or perhaps a way of coping with unresolved trauma or a painful past.

A mood disorder, such as severe anxiety, may also contribute to compulsive exercise, and these are important things to examine to really heal from underlying issues and ultimately, to renegotiate a relationship with exercise and body.

This renegotiation will also allow an opportunity to reframe what exercise is and find more gentle, mindful ways to treat your body.

When exercising is viewed more as a movement that allows you to feel good in your body, rather than feel negative about yourself, this can begin to change your overall intention for engaging in exercising.

Discovering Mindful Movement

The process of renegotiating your relationship with exercise involves changing your mindset of training. As a compulsive exerciser, exercise may be done with the purpose of burning calories, purging, or changing one’s body.

Woman running stairs

Reframing the purpose of exercise to something that should be done to honor your body will help you make decisions about the kinds of exercise and movement that are positive in which to engage.

Movement and exercise should be intuitive – meaning, your body should serve as a guide, and learning to listen to your body can help you determine what type of movement supports your overall health and wellness.

One of the common misconceptions about exercise and movement is that it has to be intense or even hurtful in order to be worthwhile or meaningful. However, this could not be further from the truth.

Movement and exercise should ultimately empower your body toward feeling your best. Mindful movement might involve anything from a beach walk, to gardening, to playing tag with your kids, or taking an evening stroll.

Above all, it is crucial to listen to your body as a guide about what level of activity is appropriate for you. If you notice that you are tired or needing rest, honoring this will help you make decisions that support what your body is needing to stay well.

Renegotiating exercise as a compulsive exerciser is not an easy task, but is something that can happen gradually with support and motivation to change.

Heather MacLaren, LPC, R-DMT, GLCMA, ICDVPAbout the Author: Heather MacLaren, LPC, R-DMT, GLCMA, ICDVP is a Dance/Movement Therapist and Trauma Specialist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.

Heather facilitates dance/movement therapy groups for adult and adolescent women struggling with eating disorders, substance use, mood disorders, and trauma. She supports women in finding safety in their bodies, self-expression, and a deeper understanding of self through movement and dance.


[1]: National Eating Disorder Assocation, “What is Compulsive Exercise?’ https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/compulsive-exercise Accessed 20 August 2017

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.

Published on October 3, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 3, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com