Learn Mindful Movement in Compulsive Overexercise Recovery

Woman struggling with over-exercise

It seems to be common in today’s society for individuals to exercise compulsively. Our Westernized society and culture seem to push for the extreme in most things.

For those who are struggling with an eating disorder compulsive, overexercise is not a healthy way to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

The discussion around mindful movement within the recovery process is typically discussed more often.

Re-learning how to move our bodies in a way that is respectful, with dignity, and awareness.

How Do I Know if I Compulsively Over-exercise?

How to know if you are struggling with compulsive over-exercise can be difficult when comparing self to today’s standards [1]. Some questions to ask yourself are if you exercise daily and are consumed with the feeling or need to exercise.

  • If you do not get to exercise, do you feel agitated, irritated, or upset, often being unable to resolve those feelings without some form of exercise?
  • Do you feel depressed, irritable, or anxious when forced to stop exercising, and does exercise take away from time with your friends, family, loved ones?
  • Does exercising become a higher priority and disrupt occupational, academic, or social responsibilities?
  • Do you have stress fractures, physical ailments, soreness, or muscle tension due to the duration and frequency of your exercise?
  • Do others comment on the amount of time you spend exercising?
  • Do you continue to workout even with sensations of or actually passing out vomiting, or fainting?

These questions can be discussed with your medical provider or therapist to assess if your exercising is too much. Many physical, mental, and emotional side effects can occur from too much exercise [1].

Physically, the body can have damaged bones, joints, tendons and ligaments, stress fractures, and dehydration. Anemia, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue can also develop from over exercise.

In females, a lack of having a menstrual cycle is a sign of too much exercise and/or too little nutrition. Mentally a person can develop obsessive, compulsive, and intrusive thoughts and behaviors around exercise.

Self-worth begins to be defined by the amount of exercise or performance done, relationships may start to suffer, and responsibilities may wean due to the obsessiveness of the exercise.

Depression, anxiety, and other co-occurring disorders can occur due to the body’s response to compulsive overexercise.

Dysfunction to Function

Dysfunctional exercise can be defined as having a negative relationship with exercise, or over-exercise [2]. It can turn into an addiction where exercise is obligatory and becomes dysfunctional.

Woman exercisingOften, as the exercise becomes more obsessive, thoughts and behaviors within the individual begin to change for the worse. The body starts to tolerate the exercise more but needs the more prolonged intensity of the exercise to achieve the same effect.

Exercise, in moderation, is essential in eating disorder recovery. It can help with muscle strength, bone density, and coordination.

It can be a way to combat medical complications such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

Mindful and intuitive exercisers tend to listen to their body while moving and incorporating their senses into the movement. It is about being able to appreciate all of their senses in the movement through smell, sound, touch, sight, and taste.

Mindful movement within recovery is being able to notice when their body experiences pain or injury and respect that by taking time away from exercise if necessary.

Intuitive exercise is about being able to use many types of physical activity. It is being able to use strength, cardiovascular, flexibility, and balance movements for health and well-being. Exercise if for enjoyment, not a number count or weight loss. It is about listening to your body, and how your body experiences the environment around you during the exercise.

Learning to Listen

Learning the beauty of mindful movement within recovery is empowering. It is not about pushing your body past its limits, but listening to what your body is trying to tell you.

Focusing on what feels right, what needs more stretching or attention at the moment, versus ignoring what our body is trying to tell us. It is about paying attention to our mental health and well-being as well. Listening to what we can tolerate each day.

At first, learning to listen is difficult. It is about challenging unhealthy eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and urges. Working with your treatment team, support system, and group members can help with learning the benefits of mindful movement.

Pairing up with a supportive friend and taking a basic yoga class or mindfulness class can help start the process of learning how to practice mindfulness.

Many outpatient and intensive outpatient centers offer yoga and/or mindfulness groups to practice in a safe environment when in recovery.

Being able to learn and utilize mindful movement does not mean giving up exercise, but it is about being able to let go of the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and relearn your body’s sensations and cues.

Recovery from compulsive over-exercise is possible through support, education, and practice.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Compulsive Exercise: When and Why Is It Too Much? (2014, May 15). Retrieved October 30, 2017, from http://www.oliverpyattcenters.com/compulsive-exercise-when-and-why-is-it-too-much/
[2] Reel, J. J. (2012). The Right ?Dose? of Activity: Health Educators Should Promote Mindful and Intuitive Exercise. Journal of Community Medicine & Health Education, 02(09). doi:10.4172/2161-0711.1000e111

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 December 2, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 2, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com