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Compulsive Exercise

What Is Compulsive Exercise?

Compulsive exercise (sometimes called exercise addiction) happens when a person is driven to exercise too much. Injury, illness, going out with friends, or bad weather will not stop those who compulsively exercise.

Why Do Some Teens Exercise Too Much?

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But athletes may strive to exercise more and more to improve their sports performance. Personal goals, coaches, teammates, or parents may pressure athletes to push themselves too far.

Compulsive exercising and eating disorders often happen together. Someone with an eating disorder also may work out excessively to lose weight. Someone with bulimia may use exercise as a way to compensate for binge eating.

Some people believe they can achieve an impossible ideal body type if they keep exercising.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Compulsive Exercise?

Compulsive exercisers often:

  • won't skip a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • can't take time off and seem anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • are constantly preoccupied with their weight and exercise routine
  • lose a significant amount of weight
  • exercise more after eating a lot or missing a workout
  • eat much less if they can't exercise
  • skip seeing friends, give up other activities, and abandon responsibilities to make more time for exercise
  • seem to base their self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • are never satisfied with their own physical achievements

What Problems Can Compulsive Exercise Cause?

Compulsive exercise can lead to:

  • injuries, including overuse injuries and stress fractures
  • in some girls, a lot of weight loss, irregular periods or no periods, and weak bones (osteoporosis). This is known as the female athlete triad.
  • unhealthy weight loss behaviors, such as skipping meals or drastically reducing calories, vomiting, and using diet pills or laxatives
  • social isolation, because working out always comes first. Compulsive exercisers may skip homework or time with friends and family to exercise.
  • anxiety and depression. Performance pressure, low self-esteem, and lack of other interests can contribute to emotional problems.

How Is Compulsive Exercise Diagnosed?

It can be hard to diagnosis compulsive exercise. There is no agreement on how much exercise is too much. A person who continues to exercise in spite of injury, health problems, or poor relationships may have an exercise addiction.

How Is Compulsive Exercise Treated?

A therapist can help someone with an exercise addiction change unhealthy behaviors, work on exercise moderation, and find coping strategies.

Treatment also includes:

  • treating injuries
  • resting or reducing exercise
  • finding alternative exercise plans
  • nutrition counseling and education about overexercising
  • treating conditions, such as eating disorders, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

What Can I Do?

It is important for compulsive exercisers to get professional help. If you think that you're exercising too much, talk to your doctor.

You also can do these things to take care of yourself:

  • Help prepare and eat nutritious meals.
  • Have fun exercising by being active together with friends or family.
  • Take a day off to rest between hard workouts.
  • Try to find new ways to ease stress and cope with problems.
  • Talk to a parent or other trusted adult and ask for support.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date Reviewed: May 1, 2022

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