Compulsive Exercise Addiction: How Intuitive Movement Can Help You Heal


You know what they say, “Too much of a good thing can be bad.” Well, can the same be said of exercise? 

Exercise has been connected with a host of benefits, including:

  • Improved overall health

  • Increased mental functioning

  • Overall better quality of life

All of these things are desirable, right?

So when does too much exercise become a bad thing? 

To explain, let me share a story with you.

How Did I Become Addicted to Exercise?

I’ll never forget when I ran my first race in elementary school. Well, it was for Jog-a-thon, our school’s unofficial fundraiser, so it might not really count. But to me, I was hyped for this competitive event, where I had raised money to run this race. 

By some miracle, I won the race, and I remember the praise, attention and celebration that came with it. I DID IT. I beat out all the other boys and girls to slide into first place. 

From that earliest hook, I began to connect what I could accomplish with physical exercise to feelings of worthiness, achievement, and value. 

This morphed over the years into fierce competition and training as a cross-country runner. I made the varsity running team as a freshman in high school and quickly became obsessed with what I could accomplish through physical training and exercise.

For so many years of my life after that, exercise morphed into a way I abused my body.

Most days, I forced myself to run miles after miles, never stopping to rest, even if I was sick, tired, or injured. I over-exercised to the point that my body began deteriorating, but even so, I continued to push myself unnecessarily. 

As a competitive cross country runner, I was more preoccupied with food, my body, and exercise than anything else in my life. It’s sad to look back on that time in my life and recognize how much I lost out on because I was so consumed by excessive exercise.

I stopped going out with friends and missed out on countless social events so that I could go run or work-out. I can’t tell you how many holiday functions I skipped out on to make myself go to the gym instead.

Physically and mentally, I was suffering, but I couldn’t give myself permission to stop exercising.

Connection Between Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders

For me, compulsive exercise was deeply connected with my eating disorder, which had started around the same time I began competitively running in high school.

I became so rigid with my food and with what I would allow myself to eat. Training became something I tried to perfect with my eating habits, thinking that somehow I could perform better if I could manipulate my body with food and exercise. 

The further I spiraled into compulsive exercise, the more it became a way to punish my body for food I had eaten. In my mind, food was categorically split between good versus bad foods, and if I ate any food I deemed as “bad” or ate any amount over my acceptable threshold, I would force myself to “run it off”.

Some nights, I would head out for an 8 mile run at 11:00 at night to “clear the slate”, so to speak. Sleeping was unacceptable until I had made amends for what I had eaten that day through exercise. 

These dangerous and obsessive behavioral addictions resulted were a lethal combination that I survived by God’s grace. It’s scary to look back and realize what I had put my body through.

It’s with equal parts remorse and gratitude that I reflect on that time in my life: regret for what I suffered and gratitude for what my body was able to survive and endure. 

Even as I progressed through my eating disorder recovery, I continued to struggle with a toxic relationship with exercise for some time. Exercise continued to be a way through which I thought I could manipulate or control the shape of my body.

I remember putting myself through horrible, intense workouts in the days leading up to my wedding day under the pressure of fitting into my dress. 

One of the biggest turning points for me was after getting married and planning for having a family.

As a result of many years of severely under-eating and overexercising, I suffered with hypothalamic amenorrhea, a condition in which I lost my menstrual cycle for several months. 

Without a regular period, I feared what this might mean when it came time for my husband and I to start a family. It never occurred to me that not having a period was a problem until having kids was on our radar. 

Hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) is typically associated with stress, weight loss, and excessive physical exercise, and while I struggled with all of these factors, I know the strenuous physical activity played a major role with my missing period. 

While I intended to share more about my recovery from an eating disorder and hypothalamic amenorrhea in an upcoming post, I will say that there is absolutely hope for healing. 

Finding Recovery and Healing

When I understood the consequences of my exercise addiction, I made a commitment to myself and my future family to recover.

Because my eating disorder increased my risk for exercise addiction, my recovery allowed me to find healing in my relationship with both food and exercise.

I knew that surrendering running was critical to healing. For the first time in 10 years, I gave up running entirely. Stopping that intensity of exercise cold turkey definitely brought up a lot of fears and uncertainties.

Ultimately, it helped free up so much TIME and mental space that had otherwise been focused on food and engaged in overexercising. 

Through my recovery, I relearned how to use food and movement as ways to nurture and respect my body rather than try to manipulate it.

Through intuitive eating and movement, I rebuilt trust with my body and learned how to tune in to the signals that my body gives me around food and exercise. 

As I began to treat my body with the respect it deserved, I gave my body space to heal from all the damage I had done. I realize that some of the physical consequences of excessive exercise and eating disorders are irreversible, and I am deeply grateful that my body could recover. 

Five kids later, I am more passionate than ever about modeling an example of intuitive movement and eating to my own kids.

I want them to know that they are worthy exactly as they are, and their bodies deserve respect and care. My hope is that food and movement are part of a nurturing and trusting relationship with their bodies.

In a world of tracking apps and devices of every kind, we’re made to believe that our worth is tangibly measured by our movement, like how many steps we take or how many miles we run.

Exercise has been used to manipulate our bodies rather than to serve and benefit, and the consequences of this can’t go overlooked. 

Diet culture has infiltrated exercise and movement to the point where we’ve become more concerned about how it might change our appearance instead of how it makes us feel.

The trouble is that many unhealthy behaviors around food and exercise are often disguised by “fitspiration” platforms and our “wellness” culture.

Especially as parents, our kids are watching and modeling the things we do and how we engage around food and exercise. I can’t help but wonder what messages kids begin to internalize about their own body image and self-worth with a cultural focus on weight and emphasis on exercising for appearance. 

The good news here is that there is absolutely HOPE for healing. Whether you have struggled with compulsive exercise addiction and/or an eating disorder, recovery is always possible. You can learn to move your body in ways that bring you joy and share that with the loved ones in your life. 

If you’re wondering about what is compulsive exercise and how to improve your relationship with your body, then this information below is for you!

Compulsive Exercise Definition: What is Compulsive Exercise?

Compulsive exercise can be characterized by an intense need and desire to workout, train, or engage in any type of physical activity. Compulsive exercise can be defined by these major criterion, including:

  1. Exercise is excessive to the point that an individual may feel driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rigid rules around activity

  2. Exercise is aimed at preventing feared consequences or preventing/reducing distress, which are typically based on distorted beliefs around exercise

  3. The amount of time consumed by compulsive exercise significantly interferes with a person’s daily routine, home life, job responsibilities, or social relationships

  4. Exercise is continued despite illness, medical injury or lack of enjoyment

On the surface level, the motivating drive to constantly engage in physical activity may appear to be related to performance and appearance. 

Individuals who compulsively exercise may be hyper-focused on: 

  • Controlling weight

  • Manipulating body size/shape

  • Compensating for food eaten

  • Excelling with athletic performance

What Influences the Risk for Compulsive Exercise?

Compulsive exercise is often related to underlying issues with more problematic concerns. For example, compulsive exercise is a frequent symptom in individuals with eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

Compulsive exercise statistics have found that runners with a high athletic identity had greater levels of compulsive exercise. 

Research has found that pressure to be thin from the media was a significant predictor of compulsive exercise in girls, whereas peer and family messages to be more muscular were contributing risk factors in boys. 

One study found a significant association between the use of mobile phone apps and compulsive exercise, where individuals who used apps for detailed record keeping of food and exercise were more likely to struggle with compulsive exercise and disordered eating.

Compulsive Exercise Signs

Some of the noticeable physical, mental and emotional signs of compulsive exercise may be seen as:

  • Having a rigid exercise regimen

  • Exercising more frequently after eating

  • Visibly anxious, distressed, or feelings of guilt if a workout has been skipped or missed

  • Continues to exercise, even when sick, tired, poor weather or injured

  • Feeling preoccupied with exercise routine, food, and/or weight

  • Eating habits that fluctuate with exercise (for example: eating less if unable to exercise)

  • Exercise is used as a way to purge or compensate for eating

  • Withdrawal from social functions, family and friends

  • Intense mood fluctuations

  • Low self-esteem

  • Feelings of discomfort with periods of inactivity or rest

  • Weight fluctuations

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Frequent injuries

  • Irregular or missing menstrual cycle

Compulsive Exercise Symptoms

Ongoing compulsive exercise can result in many adverse physical and mental consequences. Some of the major symptoms related to compulsive exercise might include:

  • Frequent and recurring injuries, including stress fractures

  • Loss of menstrual cycle and reproductive health issues

  • Poor bone health, including increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis

  • Hormonal disturbances

  • Increased risk of poorer mental health functioning, including anxiety and depression

  • Ongoing muscle soreness, joint pain, and/or fatigue

  • Increased susceptibility to illness and infections

How to Stop Compulsive Exercise

If you can relate to these signs and symptoms, please know that you are not alone. Even in the most dire situations, there is hope for healing, and I am living proof of that!

Because compulsive exercise is often influenced by a variety of factors and can be connected with more serious underlying conditions, you should always consult the help of specialists for an individualized treatment plan, including a physician and mental health professional.

In my recovery journey, exercise was something I had to renegotiate, as I learned new ways of moving that supported my body rather than fight against it.

Up until just recently, I stopped running and chose to engage in other forms of physical activity that felt good in my body and supported the different seasons of motherhood I was going through, including pregnancy and postpartum. 

Some of the key tools that helped me overcome compulsive exercise included:

  1. Learning to respect my body with movement

  2. Renegotiating what exercise and physical activity meant to me

  3. Releasing societal expectations around exercise that are deeply tied to diet culture

  4. Engage in physical activity through intuitive movement

These resources were part of a comprehensive treatment approach that supported my recovery from underlying mental illness.

Slowly, I learned to turn down the outside noise and dieting rhetoric of what exercise should look like and to tune into my body to help me understand how to move in ways that served me.

Part of the dieting rhetoric that ties into exercise is the notion that working out needs to be vigorous in order to be effective.

Retraining my brain with movement meant releasing these old and dangerous patterns of thinking. Going outside, taking walks and getting fresh air could be just as effective in achieving the health benefits with exercise in a way that better served my body. 

This also meant giving myself breaks when needed and learning how to honor my body when rest was needed OVER exercise.

So many times, I would push my body to workout, even though every bone in my body needed a break. I now know that I can trust my body as the expert of what I need, especially when it comes to movement, food and activity.

Healing From Compulsive Exercise With Intuitive Movement

If you have been around here for any length of time, you might know that I am a huge fan of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating was a crucial part of my healing from my eating disorder and in other areas of my life as well. 

I learned to listen to and trust my body as the expert of what I needed, not just for food, but for exercise, rest, and my emotional and mental needs as well. 

Diet culture can make us feel as though we can’t trust our bodies and that we would be better off following external rules and guidelines to tell us what to do. But the farther away we move from recognizing and responding to our own individual needs, the more chaotic life becomes. 

Intuitive eating and mindful movement help you reposition yourself as the expert so that you can form an alliance with your body once again.

By doing those, I have found much more peace within myself and have become a much healthier person overall in all aspects of my life. 

In the past, I had so many rigid rules around exercise, that I completely ignored my body and what it physically was going through.

As I ignored obvious signs of pain, injury, and fatigue on a recurring basis, I became more disconnected from by body. Learning intuitive movement has helped me bring a practice of mindfulness to exercise, where I can be in tune with what my body is telling me and respond accordingly. 

Most importantly, intuitive movement has helped me find joy in physical activity again and celebrate what my body is capable of, rather than punishing it or harming it.

This joy is what I hope to share with my kids. I want them to be kind toward their bodies and enjoy exercise and food in both pleasurable and joyful experiences.

One of the best reminders to me of what exercise and movement should look like is seen everyday in my kids.

They move their bodies for FUN, enjoyment, and play - not to compensate for what they ate or to manipulate their appearance in any way - and they inspire me to do the same.

Hiking was one of those things I discovered as a healing and gentler way of movement, something that became a therapeutic way to reconnect with my body after years of working against it.

These days, exercise mostly consists of chasing little ones around all day., but I am always happy to share time on the trails with the ones I love.

Ultimately, I hope they learn that health encompasses those things that celebrate what our bodies are capable of and add to our lives in a meaningful way.

What has your relationship with exercise been like and how do you enjoy movement in your body? 

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that this article is for educational purposes and does not replace medical advice. If you are in need of individualized support for compulsive exercise addiction and/or an eating disorder, please speak with your doctor or a mental health professional immediately.