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Exercise addiction

This blog entry was written by a client at your counselling service. A young woman recovering from anorexia and bulimia.  Someone who is winning her battle and also overcoming exercise addiction.

We all know that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle but few people realise that it can in fact become an addiction and cause serious physical and psychological harm.

If used healthily exercise can help us to feel good by releasing endorphins which act as natural pain relievers and stress reducers.  However as someone with an exercise addiction continues to work out they need to increase the length, frequency and intensity of their workouts to get the same effects they used to from a healthy amount of exercise.

Exercise addiction is a compulsive disorder that compels people to exercise excessively.  An exercise addict will have a chronic loss of perspective of the role of exercise in everyday life and instead of exercising for enjoyment and health benefits an addict feels compelled to exercise.  The paradox inherent in exercise addiction is the blurred boundary between what is healthy and desirable, and behaviour that is over the edge and dependant.  Warning lights for exercise addiction can include withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, guilt, irritability and depression that appear when circumstances prevent a compulsive exerciser from working out.

Exercise addiction can affect peoples’ social and academic lives as they withdraw from friends and family to fixate on exercise. They will become preoccupied with their exercise regime and begin to turn down other engagements in favour of additional hours of training and in extreme cases even lie about their exercise habits.  Injury, illness, fatigue, bad weather will not deter those who compulsively train and eventually exercise can take over a persons’ life.

Many people who engage in compulsive exercise do so to feel more in control of their lives, this is of course a sense of perceived control and in fact exercise is used to try and deal with other areas of a persons’ life that are making them unhappy. This may be work stresses, family issues or relationship troubles. Whatever the underlying issue, an exercise addict will try to deal with emotions like anger or depression by pushing their bodies to the limit. It may be that they stick to a rigorous workout schedule to seek a sense of power in order to help them deal with low self-esteem for example.  This can cause a lot of emotional distress and be really disruptive to a persons’ life.

Those suffering from an exercise addiction often use cognitive distortions to justify their workout habits. They may overgeneralise and for example think that all people who don’t exercise are ‘overweight’. The exercise addict will also have a very black and white way of thinking. This is when they fail to recognise that a moderate amount of exercise is possible and may feel as though it is not worth exercising at all unless it is to the extreme. Superstitious thinking is another sign of compulsive exercise. Those with an addiction may convince themselves that ‘bad’ things will happen if they don’t run a certain number of miles or complete a certain number of reps.

Compulsive exercising often goes hand in hand with an eating disorder. In Anorexia the excessive workouts usually begin as a means to control weight and become more and more extreme. As the rate of activity increases the amount the person eats may decrease. Someone with Bulimia may also use exercise as a way to purge feelings or compensate for binge eating.

Compulsive exercise can also bread other compulsive behaviour and lead to obsessive thoughts about perceived ‘flaws’. Unfortunately these behaviours often compound each other trapping the person in a downward spiral of negative thinking and low self-esteem.

Physically excessive exercise can be very damaging to the body and when minor injuries are not allowed to heal hey often result in long term damage.  Too much exercise can also destroy muscle mass, especially if the body isn’t getting enough nutrition, forcing it to break down muscle for energy. Females who exercise compulsively may disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies which in turn can cause fertility issues as well as increasing the risk of premature bone loss (osteoporosis).  And of course for anyone working their bodies so hard leads to exhaustion and constant fatigue.

Excessive exercise can also cause a serious risk to the heart, particularly when someone is engaging in unhealthy weight loss behaviours such as restricting food intake and vomiting. The combination of an eating disorder and compulsive exercise can be fatal.

Exercise addiction is serious but the good news is that with the correct treatment a person can learn to overcome it and can start to get back on the road to good health.

Treating a compulsion to exercise is never a quick fix process but you do not have to deal with it alone. If you are struggling with an exercise addiction or think that someone close to you might be, counselling can really help. Therapy will not immediately resolve compulsive exercise issues but can really help those with this type of addiction start the recovery process. With the help from a skilled therapist and with the right treatment plan in place therapy will give you a safe environment to address self-esteem issues and distorted body image, as well as teaching you to deal with your emotions in a healthier and more manageable way. In addition a therapist can help you to explore other areas of your life that may be contributing to your exercise addiction.

Please call 07590 663938 or e mail  We are here to help.