According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), compulsive exercise is not recognized as a specific eating disorder per se, but many people struggle with symptoms associated with this term.

Serious health consequences can result from compulsive or over-exercising. These include:

  • Loss of bone density
  • Loss of menses (in women)
  • Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S)
  • Altered resting heart rates
  • Injuries, such as stress fractures, joint and muscle problems
  • Chronic and persistent fatigue

Seven key questions can help you determine if your exercise habits are compulsive, problematic and/or related to disordered eating and the article below, written by Kelly Linehan, MS, RDN, will help you.

Written by: Kelly Linehan, MS, RDN
Erica Leon, Registered Dietitian - Are you Struggling with Compulsive Exercise?Ask yourself these 7 questions to learn more about what “normal exercise” looks like!

  1. Do I consistently schedule social activities, appointments, etc., around my workout?
    This is one of the signs I most frequently look for when someone is struggling with compulsive exercise. Is exercise the first thing you think about when you wake up and the first thing you schedule every day? Are you waking up or staying awake to extreme hours just to fit in your workout? Do these behaviors interfere with other joyful activities, such as spending time with your loved ones? Are you comfortable spontaneously cancelling your workout plan? It is completely OK to skip the gym due to another plan or simply because you want to. You do not have to exercise on a daily basis at all emotional, physical, and mental costs.
  2. Do I feel compelled to exercise after eating certain foods?
    The calories in-calories out theory has been debunked for several years, yet, diet culture still promotes the idea that we need to “burn more calories than we consume” to lose weight. For someone who struggles with compulsive exercise, the urges to workout after eating morally deemed “bad” foods are incredibly strong, making it hard to be present in the moment. If thoughts of when, where, and how much to exercise creep into your head immediately after eating a meal or snack, it may be a sign that there is more work to be done!
  3. Do I decide when to stop exercising solely based on minutes, calories burned, miles run, etc.?
    Compulsive exercisers may look to external factors to decide how much to exercise. Exercising solely to hit a particular marker or target perpetuates the idea that we “need” to workout in order to reach our goals. Because of this, we convince ourselves to push past our body’s limits and warning signs, making it hard to truly enjoy the activity. Instead, try tuning into how your body feels during a workout. Are you enjoying the movement? Do you feel energized or fatigued? Allow yourself to make decisions about the duration and intensity of your movement based on your body, not your Apple watch or Fitbit!
  4. Do I feel guilty and/or anxious on days that I can’t work out?
    Life inevitably happens. Everyone has days that they can’t possibly fit another activity into their day. Reflect on a day when you weren’t able to exercise. Maybe you had planned to but something unexpectedly came up. Do you immediately brainstorm ways you can “make it up” or reschedule a “pre-planned rest day”? If you’re flooded with feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, you may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Learning to be flexible with your routine takes time. Challenge yourself to take a few unplanned rest days and explore those feelings more!
  5. Do I only allow myself to eat certain foods on days that I exercise?
    Going back to the complete lie that calories in must be equal to or less than calories out. Having “cheat days” and feeling as though you have to compensate your “guilty pleasures” with exercise is usually a sign that you may be engaging in disordered eating and exercise behaviors. You have permission to enjoy your food without feeling like you have to pay for it in the gym the next day! Dear fitness instructors, please stop using phrases including “burn it off,” “make up for X holiday” and “let’s get back on the wagon.” Part of intuitive eating is knowing that there is no wagon to fall off of!
  6. How do I feel about more “gentle” forms of movement (i.e., walking, stretching)?
    There was a time in my life that I wrongly believed that running was the only form of movement that “counted.” Wow, I could not have been more wrong for two reasons. There are so many different types of movement that I enjoy AND there is no such thing as “counting” when it comes to how we take care of our bodies. Intentionally switching up your movement and varying intensity is a great place to start if you are interested in healing your relationship with exercise.
  7. Do I have other coping mechanisms other than exercise?
    Joyful movement is a great form of self-care and has several physical and mental health benefits. However, it is important to realize that there are countless ways to cope with stress. Reflect on the outlets you pursue when you are feeling overwhelmed. If exercise is the only thing you do to “destress,” think about some other ways you can show yourself some compassion. Some of my favorites include calling a friend, enjoying a hot cup of tea, and journaling. You do not have to exercise all the time as a way of relieving your stress!

If you would like to see a dietitian who specializes in helping people recover from compulsive exercise, make an appointment with Kelly.

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