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Angie Viets, LCP, CEDS

Stop Glorifying Excessive Exercise

When exercise becomes an obsession.

 Alexandre Vanier
Source: Photo Credit: Alexandre Vanier

“How you do it? I wish I had the motivation to get up and crank out all of those miles.” Admiration and compliments from others can fuel the already obsessive mind of the person who compulsively exercises.

The dictator inside of their brain—the one that encourages setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. to go out and run in the cold—is thrilled. They experience feelings of superiority as they downplay their “dedication.”

Clearly, we wouldn’t congratulate an alcoholic on their "motivation" to race to the liquor store after work and hammer out a case of beer while they stare at a television, instead of helping their child with homework. We can see with ease the dysfunction and impairment when a person is abusing a substance.

So why do we glorify excessive exercise? It’s because it's hard to distinguish between moderate, healthy amounts of exercise and addiction. It’s confusing when something that appears to be so “healthy” is harmful.

We’re encouraged to workout, so what's the problem if it's too much? The problem is excessive exercise has many damaging effects on our physical and psychological health.

Underneath the facade of dedication is a person who is trapped. Their internal dictator—the one that demands they over-exercise is hard to live with—not only for the person suffering, but also the people around them. It’s no fun to be with someone who is pissed off because they couldn’t get their workout in due to an outside circumstance. Nor is it pleasant when they schedule their entire day, including time with you, around their workouts.

There are ways to assess if something that was once positive and life-enhancing has become a life-interfering problem.

A Few Indicators of Compulsive Exercise:

  • Working out when sick or injured, rather than allowing time to heal and rest.
  • Prizing workouts over social gatherings, trips to see family or friends, even work meetings.
  • Losing interest in things that once were important.
  • Happiness is contingent upon the ability to exercise.

As an eating disorders specialist, I often treat individuals who struggle with compulsive exercise. I ask them to be really honest (there's a tendency to be in denial) and answer a few questions.

Truth Time:

  • Would you be comfortable with your child, sibling, or best friend working out as often as you do?
  • If someone you cared about had a similar injury or illness, would you help them lace up their tennis shoes and tell them to suck it up and workout?
  • If you were told to stop working out for an entire week, month or year, how would you feel? Depressed? Moody? Irritable?
  • If exercise was not part of your schedule, what would you do instead?
  • Could you take a couple of days off a week and taper your workouts for a while to see how you respond?
  • If unable to exercise would you cut back on food to compensate?

Your answers will help inform whether or not you're struggling with compulsive exercise. For a more thorough assessment, you can take a Compulsive Exercise Test.

If you struggle with this issue, meeting with a therapist who treats exercise addictions can help you understand the function of your obsessive behavior and support you in making necessary changes.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

About the Author

Angie Viets, LCP is a Clinical Psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.