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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, being with friends, or bad weather will not stop those who compulsively exercise.

Why Do Some People Exercise Too Much?

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But athletes may be driven 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 go hand in hand. Besides extreme dieting, someone with an eating disorder might excessively work out 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 Problems Can Compulsive Exercise Cause?

Compulsive exercise can lead to:

  • injuries, including overuse injuries and stress fractures
  • in some girls, female athlete triad. This means they lose a lot of weight, skip or stop periods (called amenorrhea), and have weak bones (osteoporosis).
  • 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 contribute to emotional problems.

What Might Parents Notice?

Parents might notice that their child:

  • won't skip a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • can’t take time off and seems anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • is preoccupied with their weight and exercise routine
  • has lost a significant amount of weight
  • exercises more after eating a lot or missing a workout
  • eats much less if they can't exercise
  • skips seeing friends, gives up other activities, and abandons responsibilities to make more time for exercise
  • seems to base self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • is never satisfied with their own physical achievements
  • has irregular periods or stress fractures

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 Parents Do?

Parents can do a lot to help a child who exercises too much. They can:

  • involve them in preparing nutritious meals
  • have fun being active together as a family
  • be body image role models and not point out their own physical flaws
  • not criticize other people's weight or body shape
  • talk to their child and offer support
  • help kids find new ways to cope with problems

If you think that your child is exercising too much, talk to your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2022