Too Much Of A Good Thing: Exercise Compulsion

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on July 13, 2009

A reader recently emailed me telling me about her problems with an exercise compulsion. She said that there are so many magazines and articles on how to get motivated to exercise, but not much on the topic of over-training.

What happens when we get too much of a good thing? In our society, we are often trained to believe that more is better. The more we workout, the more fit we will become.

But what happens when a healthy habit turns into something worthy of concern, or worse yet, a serious health concern?


Compulsive exercising is said to be one of the newly recognized eating disorders. While women (and men) have been over-exercising for decades, it has only recently gained widespread attention.

There seem to be a few terms for over-training or over-exercising:

1) Exercise Bulimia

2) Anorexia Athletica

3) Compulsive Exercising


1) Exercise Bulimia Symptoms:

Compulsive exercisers will often schedule their lives around exercise just as those with eating disorders schedule their lives around eating (or not eating). Other indications of compulsive exercise are:

  • Missing work, parties or other appointments in order to workout
  • Working out with an injury or while sick
  • Becoming seriously depressed if you can’t get a workout in
  • Working out for hours at a time each day
  • Not taking any rest or recovery days

Compulsive exercising has to do with control, much the same way people with eating disorders use food as a way to take control of their lives. But, it can turn into an endless workout if you’re not careful since most folks never feel satisfied with their bodies or their fitness levels, no matter how much they exercise.


2) Anorexia Athletica Symptoms:

· Exercising beyond the requirements for good health
· Being fanatical about weight and diet
· Stealing time from work, school, and relationships to exercise
· Focusing on challenge and forgetting that physical activity can be fun
· Defining self-worth in terms of performance
· Rarely or never being satisfied with athletic achievements
· Always pushing on to the next challenge
· Justifying excessive behaviour by defining self as an athlete or insisting that their behaviour is healthy

This disorder is most often recognized in competitive athletes, but it can affect anyone with a preoccupation with weight and/or diet


To me, both of these terms seem like they are much of the same thing only using a different name. Regardless of what we call it, compulsive exercising can have a serious negative impact on our lives.

I dealt with issues of compulsive exercising during the time when I was struggling the most with disordered eating. For me, food and exercise have always gone hand in hand. When I felt out of control with food, I also tended to feel out of control with exercise. I remember being younger and feeling the urge to exercise for sometimes hours in a day. It was never enough. I would go to a softball game or practice where I would be active for a few hours, and then I would come home and feel the need to rollerblade for 45 minutes. I used to use exercise as a way to feel in control of my life for whatever problems I was dealing with at the time, whether it be from a negative body image, problems with friends, or fighting with my parents. Other days I would ‘overeat’ and go over my calorie limit that I set for myself, and I would tell myself that I had to exercise for ‘x’ amount of time so I would burn off the extra calories I consumed. Looking back, I had it all wrong, but of course when someone is in the depths of disordered thinking patterns it is very hard to recognize that it is actually unhealthy.

The Dangers of Over-Exercising:

  • Injuries such as stress fractures, strains and sprains
  • Low body fat – this may sound good but, for women, it can cause some serious problems. Exercising too much can cause a woman’s period to stop which can cause bone loss
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis
  • Reproductive problems
  • Heart problems
  • Amenorrhea

I can’t tell you whether you have an exercise compulsion and whether it is affecting your life in a negative way. But I can assess my own life and ask myself whether my behaviours impact my life negatively, more than they do positively.

Last fall when I was training for a half-marathon, I was so concerned with adhering to a rigid half-marathon training plan, that I didn’t take into account how my body felt or whether running at the speeds I was running might be hurting my body. I felt guilt for skipping a running day. I was also dealing with a huge amount of stress in my personal life and I felt like I had to workout early in the morning even when my body just wanted to sleep. It was no wonder that my body got injured. This injury taught me to approach exercise in a new light. I now run a few times a week and I rarely, if ever, run two days in a row. This seems to work for me. Of course, many people can run much more than this and are perfectly healthy, but for me I know I feel my best when I don’t. I take frequent rest days now and I listen to my body more than I ever have. Now that I am in tune more with my body, I feel more energetic, I am sick less often, and I feel a renewed sense of motivation when I return to exercise after rest days.

I now feel like I am in a healthy place with exercise. I learned to channel my negative mindset (‘I must workout this amount for the sole purpose of burning off my dinner’) into a healthier mindset (‘I would like to improve my fitness so that I can do 20 push-ups or run a 10k’). I feel much more positive about exercise and I feel much less guilt when I miss a planned workout or take a rest day. But I will admit, sometimes the guilt is still there and I find myself asking whether a small amount of guilt or disappointment is normal and healthy or is it still indicative of a compulsion or unhealthy habit?

I think that a small amount of guilt is pretty normal. Guilt can actually serve useful functions in our lives- it motivates us to reduce the feeling by taking action! No one likes to feel guilty. And when I do feel a twinge of guilt for skipping a workout, it does motivate me to make sure that I get back on track. I also recognize that the guilt I feel every now and then is much less severe than it used to be, and I can carry on in my day and not be too concerned about it.

Some of the questions I have are these:

1) If someone is in the depths of compulsive exercising and doesn’t recognize it themselves, how do they get help? I clearly remember thinking when I was younger that there was nothing wrong with how much I exercised, but looking back I now see that I was in denial. It is similar to any eating disorder really. You can only make a long term change if you are ready to do so.

2) How do we draw the line between what is healthy and what is an unhealthy amount to exercise? I think a good guideline here is that if you are noticing any negative affects in your life as a result of exercise, it is important to assess whether you are doing too much. Like was mentioned above, if you are skipping social functions or you are getting sick/injured often, these may be signs that you are over-training.

3) When does our exercise schedule become a compulsion rather than a healthy habit?

For me, I like to consider exercise in my life to be a healthy habit, just like brushing my teeth. It is something in my day that makes me feel good. I don’t see it as a compulsion in my life because when I do miss workouts, I am flexible enough to not let it phase me. I realize that things in life come up and that is ok.

4) How much guilt is normal to feel for missing a workout?

I used to ruminate all day long about missed workouts and some days it was all I could think about. I also used to have the mindset that I had to reduce the amount I ate if I didn’t workout that day. For me, this was not a normal amount of guilt and it negatively impacted my life. I still feel a bit of guilt now and then, but it is more of a passing feeling that I acknowledge and then move on with my day.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with any of the above too?


See you tomorrow AM for a SGBC guest post by Kath on Sports Nutrition!

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Pam July 13, 2009 at 6:10 pm

I used to feel guilty when I wouldn’t workout, but now I am learning to listen to my body.

Great post as usual…thanks, Angie!



[email protected] July 13, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I used to be a compulsive runner until the point that I was running on stress fractures. UGH. It took awhile, but I am definitely in a healthy running place now.


Tay July 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm

I also used to suffer from disordered exercise habits. I would overexercise and run a large amount of miles (when I wasn’t training) if I knew I was going out to drink that night, or had a big eating event coming up. I’d push and push, run 8, 9, 10 miles because I wanted to burn the huge amount of calories. I would feel like a day was wasted if I didn’t workout that day. I would get up extra early to fit in a workout, even if I should’ve just rested.

Since my injury 3 months ago, it’s amazing the difference. Yes, I wish I could exercise more and run, but I’ve now realized that life doesn’t end if you take a week off. It’s normal to exercise for 30-45 minutes per day, 3-4 days per week, rather than the 1 hour + everyday.

I can’t wait to get back to running. There’s no way I’ll take it for granted now, and I know NOT to push myself! 3 and 4 mile runs are long enough!


Kathy July 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Wow, I can relate to so much of this post! Thank you for being so honest, Angela. I also remember the days when I would feel guilty ALL day long just because I missed a workout, or when I would make myself run or elliptical for X more minutes just so I could burn off the extra food I ate. I am so glad that I no longer feel this way. But if I am to be perfectly honest, I, like you, also just feel a twinge of guilty when I miss a day of exercise. I’m able to move on with the day and smile and not think about it, but the inital twinge of guilt is still there. I’ve also wondered whether this is normal or not.. whether it’s just always going to be there because it is the result of my past disordered eating. It’s hard to tell what is “normal” these days though since I feel like many girls have a complicated relationship with food or weight. It might not be to the extent of disordered eating or an eating disorder, but with all the propaganda and tv shows, it’s hard for girls to just be HAPPY with themselves as is.


Lauren July 13, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Awesome post! I can relate to this 100%! I’m still struggling with this, but your posts always seem to help me that little bit more! Thanks Ange :)


Sarah July 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Your post really hits home. I am struggling with the effects of exercise compulsion right now. I never thought that my exercising was all that extreme. I would do an hours worth of cardio 6-7 days a week. I often felt guilty if I didn’t work out, or if I only worked out 5 days in a week. Since April, I have significantly cut back on the intense cardio that I used to do every day and I am trying to take the extra time that I have to focus on my mental healing. Thank you for addressing this issue and I really do think that it is not discussed enough!


Jen July 13, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I grew up a figure skater, training 2x per day. On ice 4-5 hours everyday all my life. To me this was normal. As an adult and recovering from anorexia I’ve had to take a new, balanced approach to exercise for HEALTH. So refreshing. Thank you for all the info!!


Kayzilla July 13, 2009 at 7:34 pm

For me, I lost my first 20 pounds without any change in diet or realization that I was a binger by childhood habit via exercise compulsion. I discovered a kick boxing workout that was SO much fun and I’d feel like someone ran me over with a truck afterwards. I got addicted to the endorphin rush. I remember when I started to focus more on weight loss, I’d go eat 3 bowls of ice cream, and I would go work out. Immediantly. Suprisingly, I never got tummy cramps, and I never thought anything was wrong with me. Eventually I started to hate that routine, but I continued to do it.. but I did it less often, and started calorie restriction in order to gain more control over my weight.

The best way, as terrible as it is to say, for someone to figure out they have a problem is to give them the facts, point them in the right direction.. but don’t force it. Let them fall. Eventually, they’ll remember the information you gave them, and hopefully they’ll realize there’s light at the end of the tunnel. With every disordered habit I’ve had in my life, whether I realized it was wrong or was completely ignorant, I’ve only truely changed when I got to a dark place in my life. It was at that point when all my blocks were scattered on the floor that I could actually rebuild myself up more stable then I ever was. Of course, there were a lot of influences from my peers, but whenever someone tried to force me to keep myself together instead of falling apart, it just made it worse. Having the people there that let me fall, and were still there to listen and support me as I built myself up was the thing that really counted and helped me.

Now, I wont lie and say I’m completely free from disordered eating or exercise bulimia. There are still occasions when I fall back for a second, and do something dumb. There will be occasions where I slip-up and I’ll binge one day and then save a day for myself where I do two workouts in a row to make myself feel a little better about the binge. I’m only human, but as I aspire to “keep it healthy”, I notice that the extra time I might spend on that day when it does happen is less and less. One day I think I’ll never feel any guilt for skipping a workout because I was lazy that day, or not spending any extra session that week just because I had the biggest bowl of ice cream for the hell of it that weekend.

I know one thing is for sure, I never ever ever everrrr do an extra workout if I’m in physical pain. Or workout to physical pain. That’s just a promise I keep to myself under any circumstance. And.. well, me no likey pain. I’d rather gain a little weight then have to limp around for a week because I overdid it.

Like you, exercising is just a habit like brushing my teeth. Buuut I still end up having to go for a walk or something if I’m not in any physical restriction because I’m still very much young and I have a ton of freakin’ energy all day. No release makes me bouncy by the time bed time rolls around. I go for a walk *atleast* so I can sleep that night.

Fwoooh. Long comment is long. I’ll end it before this gets more excessive. Haha! Great post, as always. <3


Paige @ Running Around Normal July 13, 2009 at 7:51 pm

What a wonderful topic that is all too often overlooked. Thanks for taking some time to discuss this – it can be a very serious problem.


Mara @ What's for Dinner? July 13, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Yet another topic that hits home for me… so many of my friends are over-exercisers, and go beyond what is healthy for them. I’ve never had that issue, as I hate most forms of organized exercise, but I do see how I could replace my food addiction with an exercise addiction. I’ve also seen so many people run/bike/whatever even though they have serious injuries, which is definitely a gray area…


Brandi C July 13, 2009 at 8:17 pm

I struggled with over-excerise too! I think a statement made by Dr. Oz helped me come out of it =] His statement was about your body NEEDING rest.
DEFINITELY a HOT topic. Love You Girl!


Lauren July 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Wow, what a sensational topic to discuss. I think so many of us get consumed with disorderd eating that we overlook the other ill side with compulsive exercise. This is just as bad if not worse than any kind of ED.

I think all of us suffer from guilt from time to time when we feel as though we should be working out more or if we missed an opportunity to exercise. Somedays the guilt is stronger than others, but when we let the guilt consume us and take control, that is when we need to step back and really assess our behavior.

Love that you touched on this Angie! I think it will reach so many young women out there.

Excellent!!!!!! I can’t speak enough about it! :)


Katherine July 13, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Yep. Can totally relate. I was on my way to compulsive exercising about 8 years ago. I too was running. I avoided travel – even exciting opportunities to go overseas – because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up my exercise routine. I hated anything that would get in the way of it.

Like you, I was injured. I grew to realize that my whole identity was wrapped up in “me as a runner.” Not being able to run, I could no longer claim running as my identity. And it was horrifying at first. When I realized that running does NOT define me, and that I am much, much more than “a hard core runnner,” I became much more balanced in my identity (i.e. who I am as a wife, friend, spiritual person, etc.)

My injury was for the good. I also realized if I don’t take care of myself and over exiercise, I wouldn’t be able to walk in 30 years because I would do so much damage to my cartilage.

Thank goodness for wake up calls, huh?

Thanks for touching on this subject.


ari July 13, 2009 at 8:47 pm

thank you for doing this post because this is something i am struggling with. i always feel like i have to restrict my calories if i didn’t burn enough calories at the gym. i feel guilty eating at all if i haven’t worked out that day. i feel like i need to go to the gym every day and it’s really a struggle to give myself a day off. exercise is starting to feel like a chore and it used to be fun! it’s a struggle to get out of this mindset.


Kaley July 13, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I have this, definitely. My problem is, it’s not guilt I feel, but FEAR. Pure fear. I am so afraid of gaining weight.


J.L. July 13, 2009 at 9:47 pm

you are amazing. i have been struggling with this and was wondering just today if any of these other bloggers ever think about this.

i haven’t gotten my period since january and have just finished progestrone to bring it back. it is my second bout of amenorrhea in two years. having kids is so important to me and yet, i keep am abusing my body. just like restriction and binging. one day i’ll get this right. i just pray it isn’t too late.


Erika July 13, 2009 at 10:10 pm

I still struggle with the idea that I have to workout every. single. day. I am getting better with it, like tonight I am lettin gmyself have a day off given how busy work was, but there is still that nagging thought in my head saying, just a half hour….I find that anytime I do listen to my body and take the day off, I am almost always rewarded the next day with the BEST workout ever…Hard habits to break though…great post hon :)


MarathonVal July 13, 2009 at 10:14 pm

I think soooo many women can identify with this, Angela!! It is so hard to find the balance, but I’m glad that you have been able to do so. How were you able to make the transition to having a healthier relationship with exercise?


Angela (Oh She Glows) July 13, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Val- It took a long time to make the transition…it certainly wasn’t overnight and I am still not 100% there. Three things helped me see it in a new light…1) Letting go of the obsession with my weight and calories spilled over into my exercise self too. I started to ease up on myself with respect to exercise guilt, because I was treating myself better in other areas too. It’s contagious :) 2) I started to focus on exercise that I found FUN and enjoyable. I stopped getting a gym membership and I did more outdoor workouts…hikes…found a passion in running, etc. I used to chain myself to a stepper and countdown the minutes until it ended. THAT was no way of enjoying exercise! 3) Lastly, as I mentioned, my injury helped remind me that we have to work WITH our body and not against it. Ultimately, our bodies give us the final word…if we get injured, we quickly learn to appreciate our health and when our bodies ARE working for us. Whenever I feel a bit guilty for skipping a workout, I remind myself what it was like to go 2 full months without any activity!~A


April July 14, 2009 at 1:04 am

I know I over exercise. I’m trying to find a balance. I have spent 3 hours a day on the treadmill. Now i’ve cut that down to an hour and i’ll do a step tape which I LOVE!


WholeBodyLove July 14, 2009 at 1:44 am

I tend to be the opposite: when I was fanatical about calories,I was exercising less because I had no energy. Whole, healthy foods fuel my body for exercise that makes me feel even more energized and most of all calms my mind.


SuzanneRN July 14, 2009 at 4:50 am

Once again, a great topic! I can def identify with some of this. I think I have more of the thought processes going on, like feeling horribly guilty if I don’t workout enough or don’t due to an injury. But I don’t actually over exercise. Wonderfully researched and beautifully written!


A July 14, 2009 at 7:37 am

Ang, of all the health-related blogs I read, I feel like yours is the most devoted to actually helping readers, connecting with people out there, and trying to be a friend and source of inspiration. I think the other blogs have a lot to offer, but yours is the blog that achieves the balance between compassion/sympathy/caring/kindness and tough love/kick in the ass motivation. I feel like you care, when so many of the other girls are just trying to make a name for themselves or advertise their sponsors.


Valerie July 14, 2009 at 9:23 am

I used to have a lot of guilt if I didn’t work out, especially if the reason was simply that I didn’t feel like it. Well, I probably didn’t feel like it because at that point I was making myself work out on the elliptical 5-6 times per week for 30-45 minutes and I am not a huge fan of the elliptical (I could probably suck it up and use it once a week, but not almost daily). So I was forcing myself to work out in a way I didn’t enjoy and obviously that would make me less motivated, then I wouldn’t do it and then I’d feel guilty. It was a bad cycle and I think that was definitely linked to my obsessions over food. If I wasn’t working out hours per week obviously the only way I could lose weight was cutting calories further, right? I was definitely really wrong in thinking that.

I now don’t count calories, don’t restrict anything (just watch portion sizes and frequency of eating unhealthier things) and don’t force myself to exercise in a way I don’t enjoy. I now walk 30-45 minutes 4-6 days a week and run 2-4 days per week for about 30 minutes. I don’t feel guilty about not meeting my workout quota (as as you can see, my workout days can vary a lot). Some weeks I might be busy and can only fit in 3 walks and 1 run. Not a big deal but it was hard to get away from the guilty feelings of missing even one workout for a good reason.


Fitzalan July 14, 2009 at 11:02 am

Yes, I definitely had all of these, how ever you want to call it: Exercise Bulimia, Anorexia Athletica, or Compulsive Exercising. And it was absolutely terrible. I took something I adored and turned it into something so awful. I had to seek professional help to be able to stop the addiction. I was worried that I would never be able to enjoy working out again because of this…It took years but I am completely back to just working out for mental health and heart health reasons. I never think about how many calories I am burning.

I completely agree, more attention should be paid to this because I really do think it is a major issue!

Happiness Awaits


Peach July 15, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Just came across your blog as it was linked from my website, — my book, “Diary of an Exercise Addict” tells the story of my struggle with obsessive exercise, and my recovery from this and anorexia. I’d love for your readers (and you!) to check it out. Thanks for all your work.



Alison July 26, 2015 at 6:07 am

Working out is great but pushing too much is considerably unfavorable. We should know our limits and capabilities first hand and most of all listen to ourselves before we try to exceed them. Yes, it’s not a sin to take risks, and neither being cautious sometimes as well.


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