Too Much of a Good Thing: Compulsive Exercise Can Have Devastating Results


With obesity rates at epidemic proportions and activity levels on the decline, “eat less, work out more” sounds like the perfect plan to cure what ails the majority of Americans today. However, some people are inflicting considerable damage on themselves by taking this advice to the extreme.


An obsession with exercise can take many forms, and can be fueled by a desire to lose weight, maintain one’s current size, or bulk up – often to unhealthy levels. Three of the most common disorders associated with obsessive exercise are anorexia athletica, non-purging bulimia, and body dysmorphic disorder.

  • Anorexia athletica– Also known as “obligatory exercise,” this term is used to describe individuals who find themselves compelled to exercise beyond the point of benefiting one’s body. Obligatory exercisers will lift weights, run, or engage in other athletic activities regardless of pain, injury, illness – often arranging the rest of their lives in order to maximize their workout time. Weight control may or may not factor into the compulsions felt by obligatory exercisers, who may instead use exercise to deal with depression, despair, or feelings of helplessness.
  • Exercise (or non-purging) bulimiaIn this form of the binge-and-purge disorder bulimia nervosa, binge eating sessions are followed not by vomiting or the use of laxatives, but instead by periods of high-intensity exercise.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder – While exercise bulimics are compelled to lose – or at least control – their weight, individuals with body dysmorphic disorder are obsessed with increasing their size. People with “bigorexia” (as the disorder is sometimes called) devise highly regimented diet plans and push themselves through marathon workouts to combat continued feelings of being “too small.”


With health experts constantly advising Americans to get off the couch and into the gym – and with elite athletes being continually praised for “going the extra mile” in terms of conditioning and physical preparation – how can a health-conscious individual differentiate between dedication and obsession? According to the experts, it’s not easy.

“There is no set formula or standard that reveals how much exercising is too much,” Dr. Theresa Fassihi of the Baylor College of Medicine said in the August 2007 edition of the online newsletter Findings. “But if exercising is interfering in a person’s life and it is compulsory, then it may be a problem.”

Other signs of an exercise obsession, Fassihi told writer Anissa Orr, include paying more attention to appearance than to health or performance. “If you have an exercising disorder, you also may be very preoccupied about your body’s appearance, weight and muscle mass,” she said. “You spend a lot of time looking at yourself, scrutinizing yourself, measuring yourself and constantly working out to create the muscle mass or lean body that you want.”

Though exercise obsession is not listed in the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), answering “yes” to any of the following questions could indicate that an individual is suffering from a compulsive exercise disorder:

  • Do you force yourself (or feel forced) to exercise even when you are ill or injured?
  • Have you experienced chronic fatigue, muscle soreness, or sleep disruptions (all are signs of overtraining), yet continued to adhere to your workout regimen?
  • Does missing a workout cause you to feel anxious or stressed?
  • Do you neglect important parts of your life (such as relationships, school, or work) in order to have time to work out?
  • Have you noticed that the majority of your conversations consist of talking about your exercise and diet plan?
  • Do you think that taking a day off from exercise is a sign of weakness or failure?
  • Have friends or family members expressed concern or frustration with the amount of time and effort you are devoting to exercise?


Research has documented that regular physical activity has many benefits, but compulsive exercise is a classic example of the cliché regarding “too much of a good thing.”

In addition to the health risks associated with losing or gaining abnormal amounts of weight, obsessive exercise can also subject an individual to the following symptoms related to overtraining:

  • Anxiety, depression, and disturbed sleep
  • Apathy, exhaustion, and chronic fatigue
  • Irregular or nonexistent menstruation
  • Osteoporosis
  • Muscle pain, joint deterioration, and decreased mobility
  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Mood disorders and emotional isolation


Regardless of whether an individual’s exercise obsession is related to disordered eating, a body-image condition, or an obsessive-compulsive disorder, help is available. More moderate cases may be addressed by outpatient psychotherapy, while severe instances can require hospitalization or a stay at a residential treatment facility.

Because exercise compulsions often occur in conjunction with other issues, professional help is encouraged in order to help the afflicted individual modify his behaviors while also addressing the internal and external influences that led to or exacerbated the obsession.

Family doctors or other health care providers can provide information about treating exercise obsessions. For individuals who are inclined to do their research online, the 4Therapy network of mental health professionals is an excellent resource for educating oneself about therapeutic options and opportunities.

Click here to locate a facility near you »