When does exercise become unhealthy?

When does something that’s healthy and good for you, become something unhealthy – and potentially dangerous?

Exercise addiction can be hard to spot and equally hard to understand. The signs and symptoms can be very nuanced, and engaging in health promoting activities – such as exercise – is actively celebrated and encouraged in our culture, making it ever-more complicated.

Why do people develop exercise addictions?

An exercise addiction can develop when we’re going through a particularly challenging time in life, such as getting bullied at school or witnessing difficulty in the family. It can also develop when we’re going through a transitional phase which is bringing about a lot of change, such as moving homes, schools, or even navigating the experience of growing up.

When we feel overwhelmed, or don’t feel as though we have control of our lives, we can look outside of ourselves as means of coping. Over-exercising can be one such means. It serves a purpose to help numb overwhelming emotions, such as anxiety, anger or sadness, by narrowing our focus and distracting our attention and occupying our thoughts.

It can make us feel better – albeit fleetingly. Endorphins are released during and after exercise, which can help relieve stress and pain. As such, after we exercise we may feel like things are genuinely better, prompting us to return to exercise again and again in order to escape the difficulty we’re experiencing.

Over-exercising can also be a symptom of an eating disorder and used as a way of “purging” or compensating for any food eaten or calories consumed. In this case, exercise can be used to lose weight and control our body shape or size.

So what are the signs and symptoms to look out for?

Signs and symptoms of exercise addiction:

Exercise is the priority

Exercise comes above anything else, including hanging out with your friends and family. You might be cancelling plans or pushing back meeting times in order to ensure you can work out.

You don’t take rest days

Even when you’re tired and perhaps don’t want to workout, you don’t let yourself have a day off. Instead you keep going, keep setting the alarm and dragging yourself to the gym.

You’re pushing yourself to the extreme

You might be waking up extremely early to get to the gym, or always pushing yourself to your limit with every work out, and always trying to get a personal best. Here, you might be finding it really hard to authentically enjoy working out.

You’re injured but you don’t stop

If your body needs time to rest and heal after an injury, you might be finding other ways to continue working out, or lying to people around you that you’re not working out when in fact you are.

You’re using exercise to control your diet and body

You might be exercising to “purge” everything you’ve eaten that day. Your food intake may be entirely based around your exercise goals, and you might be obsessively tracking your macro-nutrient intake via an app or calculator.

Your sense of self-worth is tied to working out

You may only feel like you love yourself if you have worked out, and otherwise have extremely low self-esteem or a low sense of self-worth.

You feel an overwhelming sense of guilt if you don’t work out

If you don’t work out – or are unable to for some reason – you are preoccupied with guilt and may be obsessively finding a way to make up for any time lost.

Remember, you can recover from exercise addiction

Whilst it may seem impossible to break free from the compulsion to over-exercise at first, it is possible to break the cycle and return to a healthier relationship with movement.

The first – and often hardest – step involves recognising that you have a problem, and that you might need support with this. So if you’re reading this and seeing some of your own behaviours in the list of signs and symptoms, take a moment to recognise just how brave you are, and how much strength it takes to admit (even to yourself) that you might have a problem.

Movement can bring so much joy and well-being to our lives, and finding that balance can be difficult all on our own. If and when you feel ready, reach out to your loved ones and perhaps consider finding specialist support to help you return to a more loving relationship with your body.


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