What is compulsive exercise? Is it linked to eating disorders?

Do you find yourself exercising excessively, or are you stuck in that dangerous cycle where excessive exercise triggers disordered eating and restrictive eating fuels compulsive exercise? Learn how seeking professional help can help break this cycle and discover the link between compulsive exercise and eating disorders.

A woman exercising by the seashore

Key takeaways

  • Compulsive exercise is an excessive and uncontrollable urge to engage in physical activity, often linked to underlying psychological factors.
  • Compulsive exercise is strongly connected to eating disorders, as individuals with disordered eating patterns may exercise to control weight or compensate for food intake.
  • Signs of compulsive exercise include exercising despite injuries, neglecting other responsibilities for exercise, feeling anxious or guilty when unable to exercise, and experiencing distress if a workout routine is interrupted.
  • Compulsive exercise primarily affects individuals with eating disorders, particularly those who already have body image concerns.
  • Compulsive exercise can lead to various health complications and risks, such as overuse injuries, hormonal imbalances, and negative impacts on mental well-being. Seeking proper diagnosis and treatment is essential for breaking the cycle and promoting overall well-being.

Are you curious to understand why some individuals become consumed by their workout routines? How does this obsession intersect with disordered eating?

Whether you seek to enhance your understanding or gain insights for yourself or a loved one, this article will explore all about compulsive exercise and its intimate connection to disordered eating. It will also delve into the signs, risks, and treatment options surrounding compulsive exercise.

What is compulsive exercise?

Compulsive exercise is when exercise takes control of your thoughts and behaviors, interfering with your daily life and causing distress, injuries, and even physical health issues.

If you have compulsive exercise disorder, you may have the overpowering urge to exercise constantly and be unable to resist the call for physical activity.

Is compulsive exercise linked to eating disorders?

Yes, there is a connection between compulsive exercise and eating disorders. There is profound scientific evidence to support the relationship between the two, as compulsive exercise can exacerbate the harmful effects of eating disorders.

Studies have shown that individuals with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders commonly exercise excessively to control weight or compensate for food intake. This behavior can become compulsive, reinforcing the harmful cycle of disordered eating.

The link between compulsive exercise and eating disorders lies in their underlying psychological factors. A desire for control, perfectionism, and body dissatisfaction drive both conditions. Exercise becomes a way to maintain control over one's body and weight, and individuals may feel compelled to exercise even when injured, exhausted, or unwell.

Signs and symptoms of compulsive exercise

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of compulsive exercise is crucial. Some common indicators of compulsive exercisers include:

  • Exercising even when tired or injured
  • Neglecting social and familial obligations to make more time for exercise
  • Feeling anxious or guilty when even one workout is missed
  • Exercising at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings
  • Experiencing physical or emotional distress if a workout routine is interrupted
  • Losing a significant amount of weight as exercise becomes a means to "get rid" of calories
  • Exercise more after eating a lot or if they miss a workout - exercise as permission to eat
  • Exercising in secrecy
  • Base self-worth on the effort put into training
  • Never satisfied with their physical achievements 

Who does compulsive exercise affect most?

Compulsive exercise knows no boundaries, potentially affecting anyone. However, it has been observed that individuals with eating disorders, particularly women, are more likely to be affected. This group, already preoccupied with thoughts of their body image and weight, faces a higher risk of developing compulsive exercise behaviors.

Athletes, driven by the demands of training and the pressure to excel, often fixate on a specific body weight and shape. As a result, they may have a heightened risk of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. The competitive nature of sports can contribute to psychological and physical stress, further fueling the potential for compulsive exercise behaviors.

Health complications and risks associated with compulsive exercise

When it comes to compulsive exercise, the toll it takes on your health cannot be ignored. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) highlights several risks and health complications associated with this excessive behavior:

  • Overuse injuries such as stress fractures, chronic bone, and joint problems
  • Hormonal imbalances 
  • Persistent fatigue or feeling sluggish
  • Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem
  • An altered resting heart rate, which can lead to cardiovascular problems
  • The excessive strain on your body from overtraining can compromise your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to frequent illnesses and upper respiratory infections.
  • The Female Athlete Triad, which is characterized by disordered eating, amenorrhea (lack of periods), and weakened bones (osteoporosis or osteopenia)
  • Unhealthy weight loss practices include skipping meals, severe calorie restriction, vomiting, and diet pills or laxatives
  • Social isolation and performance pressure because working out always comes first 
  • Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S): Insufficient energy intake to support exercise demands can affect multiple body systems and impair performance and overall health.

Diagnosis and treatment for compulsive exercise

While there is currently no approved assessment specifically tailored for compulsive exercise behaviors, healthcare professionals take a multidisciplinary approach when diagnosing and treating this condition. Assessments may be conducted to examine exercise patterns, mental health, and overall daily functioning to evaluate compulsive exercise's severity and impact.

The treatment of compulsive exercise is similar to the treatment of eating disorders. Therapy plays a significant role, with cognitive-behavioral therapy being the standard method employed. This form of therapy helps individuals modify their behaviors, identify underlying psychological factors contributing to compulsive exercise, and develop healthier patterns of moderation and balance.

Medication may be prescribed to address co-existing mental health conditions contributing to compulsive exercise, such as eating disorders, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

When to seek medical help

If you or a loved one shows signs of compulsive exercise significantly interfering with daily life, seeking medical assistance is crucial. Consulting with a healthcare professional is essential, as they can conduct a thorough evaluation and create a personalized treatment plan tailored to individual needs and circumstances. You can also do these things to take care of yourself:

  • Prepare and eat nutritious meals.
  • Have fun exercising by being active together with friends or family.
  • Prioritize rest and recovery between hard workouts.
  • Explore alternative ways to manage stress.
  • Seek support from a parent or other trusted adults.


Compulsive exercise is an excessive and uncontrollable urge to engage in physical activity. It is closely related to eating disorders due to shared psychological factors. Recognizing the signs, understanding the risks, and seeking timely treatment can help individuals break free from the harmful cycle of compulsive exercise and eating disorders, promoting better physical and mental well-being.