6 signs that you’re an obsessive-compulsive exerciser


Young sportsmen having hard workout and grimacing on cycling machines in light gym.
Young sportsmen having hard workout and grimacing on cycling machines in light gym.

There is such a thing as too much exercise, and some obsessive-compulsive fitness people may be doing themselves more harm than good by overdoing it.

Regular exercise keeps your mind and body healthy, and The Australian Department of Health recommends between 2.5 and 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity plus strengthening activities two days each week for adults 18 -64 years. For people 65 years and older, the recommendation is 30 minutes every day.

While many people struggle to meet the guidelines, there is a portion of the population who continually exceed the recommendation, some at the detriment to their health. Compulsive exercise is characterised by a craving for physical training, resulting in uncontrollable excessive exercise behaviour with harmful consequences, such as ill-health, injuries and impaired social relations.

A review published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management (2017) found that compulsive exercise is associated with perfectionism, neuroticism, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive traits and eating disorders. Dr Phillipa Hay, a renowned eating disorders academic and psychiatrist, and Director of Wesley Eating Disorders Centre at Wesley Hospital in Ashfield has found that obsessive-compulsive exercise is most frequently driven by an underlying eating disorder. According to Dr Hay, studies have shown that compulsive exercise occurs in half of all patients with an eating disorder up to 80 per cent of anorexia nervosa patients and up to 57 per cent of patients with bulimia. “The combination of the two disorders is associated with poorer outcomes and longer hospitalisations and is a predictor of relapse,” Dr Hay says. “Obsessive-compulsive exercise also causes higher levels of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, in people with an eating disorder and in some studies it has also been related to increased rates of suicide and self-harm.”

“For this reason, it’s important to get help if you or a loved one is showing symptoms, which often include increased anxiety and mood changes if unable to exercise, rigid and unrealistic exercise rules or goals and the drive to exercise even when ill or injured.”

To treat obsessive-compulsive exercise symptoms and establish a healthy relationship with physical activity, body image and diet, Dr Hay recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “CBT can help change a person’s attitude, beliefs and behaviours towards a difficult-to-manage behaviour such as physical activity, to promote exercise that is ‘healthy’. ‘Healthy’ exercise is exactly that – exercise for health and well-being – like joining a local sports team – versus solitary weight lifting at midnight driven from fear,” Dr Hay says.

Dr Phillipa Hay’s six signs and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive exercise:

  1. Mood changes. Exercise becomes ‘unhealthy’ when the inability to exercise causes mood changes. Feelings of guilt, anger or irritability may arise when a person is unable to engage in physical activity.
  2. Fear of stopping or reducing exercise. People may have an overwhelming fear of the negative consequences that may result if they stop or reduce exercise; such has becoming fat, or a feeling as of an inability to cope. Not being able to exercise may cause heightened levels of anxiety.
  3. Strict exercise rules. A common sign of obsessive-compulsive exercise is following rigid exercise rules to avoid negative consequences. These are often linked with food consumption. For instance, a person might decide they should spend extra time exercising if they ate something unhealthy, or miss a meal if they do not exercise.
  4. Setting difficult exercise goals. A fitness goal such as losing excess weight, training for a race or gaining muscle is healthy. Exercise goals become unhealthy when they are unrealistic and inflexible. Failure to meet high standards often leads to self-criticism, heightened anxiety and negative feelings.
  5. Skipping other engagements. Exercise becomes compulsive when physical activity becomes the central focus of a person’s thoughts to such an extent that it takes precedence over other responsibilities. People may spend too much time thinking about, planning and engaging in exercise that they miss social engagements, or it gets in the way of work or study.
  6. Exercising in poor health or circumstances. While an injury or illness may cause a healthy exercising person to rest and recover, an obsessive-compulsive exerciser will continue to workout even when it is detrimental to their physical health. The compulsion will motivate them to exercise even in bad weather despite the increased risk of other infections or ailments.


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