Exercise Addiction: What You Need to Know

Eating disorders and disordered eating don’t necessarily involve unhealthy exercise habits, but it’s long been noted that the two often seem to go together. Now, there’s scientific evidence to back up these anecdotal observations: a new study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders indicates that exercise addiction is over 3.5 times more likely to occur in people who have an eating disorder versus those who don’t. Through a meta-analysis of nine studies across four countries, this new report analyzed results from over 2,000 participants.

In a press release, the lead researcher noted how important it is for people dealing with eating disorders to get support around potential exercise addiction as well. Of course, it’s not always easy to know when positive exercise habits are turning into unhealthy tendencies. If you want to take good care of yourself through nutrition and exercise, how can you distinguish between what’s helpful and what’s harmful?

Especially if you’ve dealt with an eating disorder or disordered eating in the past (and even if you haven’t), it can be helpful keep these three warning signs of exercise addiction in mind. If you notice yourself developing any of these habits, it may be best to seek support around the role of exercise in your life.

  1. Ignoring illness, injuries, and/or exhaustion

Sometimes exercise involves pushing your limits, but it shouldn’t cause you physical harm. If you’re so devoted to your workout routine that you continue to exercise even if you’re tired, sick, or hurt, you may be at risk of developing an exercise addiction. For instance, one study found that people at risk of exercise addiction experience high levels of emotional distress when they’re injured and unable to follow their usual exercise routines. Remember that healthy exercise routines should be flexible—pushing your body too hard when it’s already run down from other stresses won’t do your health any good.

  1. Putting exercise above all other priorities

Prioritizing exercise can be a good thing, but only to a certain extent. The National Eating Disorders Association notes that exercise that “significantly interferes with important activities” runs the risk of becoming compulsive. That is, if your exercise routine is rigid enough that you feel uncomfortable modifying it even for important events—for instance, a family gathering or a trip out of town—it could be a sign that your workouts are going against your overall health. The same goes for letting exercise push out all your other hobbies and interests. It’s a warning sign if, for example, you used to love playing the guitar but no longer leave yourself any time to practice.

  1. Experiencing extreme guilt, worry, or obsessive thoughts about exercise

Research suggests that one of the main factors that distinguishes healthy exercise habits from compulsive ones is the way that you feel if you’re not able to exercise for whatever reason. If you value exercise, it’s normal to feel a little annoyed or disappointed if you have to missed a planned workout, but if you find yourself feeling very upset by any deviation from your exercise routine, you might be developing an exercise addiction. Similarly, obsessive thoughts about exercise can also be a warning sign; if you have a hard time focusing on work, relationships, or other important pursuits because you’re always thinking about your next workout, consider seeking professional support to help you make exercise a more manageable part of your life.