When Does Exercise Become Unhealthy?

Wednesday, Oct 28  •  


Getting some exercise can be an excellent way for women to improve their health, however, when struggling with an eating disorder, exercise may play a more complicated role in one’s life. Compulsive exercise is an eating disorder symptom that affects many adolescent girls and women, turning a healthy activity into a behavior that can be devastating to their health and ability to function. 

What is considered compulsive exercise? 

It was originally believed that weight and body image concerns were the root of excessive exercise when connected to an eating disorder, however, additional research has revealed that many individuals who have eating disorders exercise excessively to relieve feelings of anxiety or distress or to avoid negative or overwhelming emotions. As the compulsive behavior continues, these individuals tend to exercise more frequently and for longer than intended to try and overcome those feelings. 

What is the impact? 

Exercise is known for its health benefits, but when the drive to exercise stems from an eating disorder, it can do more harm than good. Like other eating disorder symptoms, compulsive exercise can be isolating, pulling individuals away from their friends and family as they struggle with the urge to work out, even if it is damaging their relationships. 

The compulsion to exercise can also interfere with other areas of a person’s life, including schoolwork, job, or tasks around the house. Focusing on a workout regimen can keep one from maintaining a regular routine or successfully performing at school or work. 

The effects of compulsive exercise can also be devastating to an individual’s physical and mental health. Exercising and not fueling the body properly can put an individual at risk for electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, muscle wasting, injuries, and/or sudden death. 

Signs and Symptoms

Excessive exercise may be difficult to distinguish, especially among athletes. The key feature that determines whether the exercise is problematic lies less in the quantity of activity than it does in the motivations and attitudes behind it. Feeling exercise as a compulsion, exercising primarily to influence shape and weight, and feelings of guilt after missing an exercise session are all motivational factors for exercise when tied to an eating disorder. If one or more of the following statements are true for you or a loved one, consider whether you may benefit from seeking help:

  • Your exercise interferes with important activities such as work or socializing
  • You exceed three hours of exercise per day 
  • Stress or guilt are felt when you are unable to exercise
  • You exercise at inappropriate times and places 
  • You continue to exercise despite an injury, illness, or medical complication

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of excessive exercise and/or an eating disorder, it is ok to reach out for help. For more information about the Avalon Hills program, give us a call at 435-938-6060.