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What is exercise addiction and how can you overcome it?

Exercise addiction, also known as compulsive exercise or excessive exercise, is a condition characterized by an unhealthy obsession with physical activity and exercise.

High intensity exercise

Individuals with exercise addiction display compulsive and uncontrollable urges to engage in exercise, often to the detriment of their physical, emotional, and social well-being.

Exercise addiction shares similarities with other forms of addiction, such as substance addiction, in that individuals may experience cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and a loss of control over their exercise habits. They may prioritize exercise over other important aspects of their life, such as work, relationships, and personal responsibilities.

Identifying when your relationship with exercise has become unhealthy can be challenging, but there are several signs to watch out for:

Continuing to exercise despite physical injury or illness:

Pushing through excessive pain, fatigue, or injury to continue exercising despite your body's signals to stop can be a sign of unhealthy behaviour

Feeling guilt or anxiety / Lack of flexibility in your exercise routine:

Feeling distressed or anxious when your exercise routine is disrupted or unable to adapt to changes in your schedule may indicate a rigid and unhealthy relationship with exercise.

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when unable to exercise:

Withdrawal symptoms related to exercise addiction can manifest both physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms may include restlessness, irritability, anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia, and changes in appetite. Emotionally, you may experience mood swings, depression, feelings of guilt or shame, and a strong urge to engage in exercise.

Prioritising exercise over other responsibilities and personal relationships:

If exercise begins to interfere with your ability to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or in relationships, it may be a sign of imbalance.

Exercise as punishment or compensation:

Using exercise as a way to "punish" yourself for eating certain foods or as compensation for indulging in unhealthy behaviors can be a red flag.

Exercising to achieve a certain body image:

If exercise becomes a means of controlling or altering your body shape or weight, rather than promoting overall health and well-being, it may be a sign of unhealthy behaviour.


To overcome exercise addiction can be hard, it's often important to seek help and support. Here are some strategies that may be helpful:


Recognise the problem: Acknowledge that you may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise and recognise the negative impact it is having on your life.


Seek professional help: Consider seeking support from a therapist or counsellor who specialises in addiction or eating disorders. They can help you understand the underlying causes of your exercise addiction and work with you to develop healthier coping mechanisms.


Set boundaries: Establish boundaries around your exercise routine and prioritise self-care activities and relationships. Aim for a balanced approach to physical activity that promotes overall well-being.


Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself and avoid self-criticism. Recognise that recovery from addiction is a journey, and it's okay to ask for help along the way.


Challenge distorted beliefs: Identify and challenge any negative or distorted beliefs you may have about exercise, body image, and self-worth. Work on cultivating a positive and compassionate mindset.


Build a support network: Surround yourself with supportive friends, family members, or support groups who can offer encouragement and understanding as you navigate recovery.


If you recognise any of these unhealthy signs in your relationship with exercise, it may be helpful to seek support from a healthcare professional, therapist, or counsellor who specialises in eating disorders or addiction. By addressing the underlying issues and making positive changes, individuals can regain control of their lives and cultivate a healthier and more productive relationship with exercise.

First published on Counselling Directory, 12/03/24

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