Dr. Charlie Seltzer says he had to hit rock bottom before he could see the exhausting cycle of exercise addiction he was in.
At one point, Seltzer was averaging 75 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day, six days a week, and living on minimal calories. But like any other addictive behavior, Seltzer quickly realized he needed more and more to get the same effect.
“It negatively impacted my life to the point where I would panic if I had to cut a workout short by even five minutes or go out to dinner where I couldn’t control my food,” he tells Healthline. The cycle, explains Seltzer, broke when he “burnt out.” It’s been a journey, but he says exercise now is about enjoyment and the process — not because he feels compelled to do it.
Exercise addiction isn’t an official mental disorder. However, the link between compulsive exercise and disordered eating often go hand in hand. In fact, the link is so strong that some researchers say they can’t exist independently from one another at all.
While the continuum of compulsive exercise is broad, being able to identify signs early may help you stop the cycle before it reaches the level of addiction.
7 signs your gym habit is coming from an unhealthy place
1. You work out to make up for meals or body parts you don’t like
The biggest sign that your exercise habit is actually unhealthy is if you’re exercising too often and intensely in order to compensate or punish yourself for your daily food intake, or what you perceive to be true about your body.
2. You’re always at the gym
If the front desk staff at your gym know more about you than your co-workers, you might be spending too much time there.
“While gym rats might spend a few hours a week at the gym, such as an hour a day, those who are obsessed with the gym and exercising might spend three or four hours there each day, or frequent the gym a few times a day,” explains Dr. Candice Seti, PsyD.
3. You feel tired most of the time
Unhealthy gym habits often lead to fatigue and exhaustion from spending too much time working out and not enough time taking care of your body.
Seti says this can put stress on your body and the body’s systems, leading you to become sick or injured from spending too much time at the gym.
4. You change plans to accommodate your workout schedule
Do you cancel plans at the last minute or make adjustments in your schedule to accommodate your workouts?
“People obsessed with the gym frequently find themselves changing their plans or planning activities and social engagements around the time they usually would spend in the gym,” Seti explains.
For example, someone who has exercise addiction might turn down going for dinner with friends because it interferes with the hours they’d spend in the gym.
5. Your feelings about exercise include words like mandatory, guilt, anxiety, and rigid
When it comes to exercise, the goal is to feel better — not worse — while you’re doing it. Matt Stranberg, MS, RDN, at Walden Behavioral Care, says the following signs indicate a healthy relationship with physical activity might be transitioning to an unhealthy habit, obsession, or dangerous compulsion:
- You maintain a rigid exercise regimen despite dangerous weather conditions or threats to physical health, mental health, or both.
- Your main goal is to burn calories or lose weight.
- You experience persistent fear, anxiety, or stress regarding negative body changes if you can’t exercise.
- The thought of not exercising makes you feel anxious.
- You feel guilty if you miss or don’t complete an exercise session.
6. Your results are diminishing
Too much time in the gym often equates to diminished results.
For example, certified fitness trainer Jeff Bell says if you find yourself constantly skipping rest days to fit in workouts seven days a week, you’re in the overtraining zone.
“You may become irritable, lose sleep and your appetite,” he explains. Too much of a good thing can go wrong very quickly in this case.
7. You have a negative body image
Countless hours working out won’t fix your body image. In fact, there’s a good chance it might make it worse.
“A lot of people who are gym-obsessed find that they have a poor body image,” Seti says. “They see an unrealistic version of themselves and strive to perfect it, even if it’s not healthy for them to keep indulging in.”
An unrealistic body image can lead to eating disorders as well as overexercising.
Next steps to take for a healthier relationship with exercise
Keep a workout journal
A workout journal will help you identify feelings and patterns connected to exercise. Include in your journal:
- the days you exercise
- the activities you do
- how you feel while working out
- how much time you devote to fitness that day
- how you feel (both emotionally and physically) when you’re not working out and on your rest days
Once you identify those feelings, registered dietician and yoga teacher Claire Chewning, RD, says you can work to find ways to shift the mindset around movement to “freedom” and “mobility” rather than “punishment.” She says this is imperative to the success of a sustainable wellness journey.
Change things up. If any of the warning signs sound familiar, it might be time for a change. Ideally, you should allow your body some time to rest and recover, but we all know how difficult that can be.
If the thought of complete rest sends your anxiety into overdrive, consider swapping out a few of your workouts for active rest days. Engaging in activities like yoga, walking, tai chi, and swimming give your body and your mind a much-needed break.
Seek professional help
Sometimes, the quest to find the balance between healthy and obsessive exercise is difficult to do on your own.
Seeking professional help via your doctor or a mental health expert who specializes in exercise addiction or sports psychology might be the best place to start.
They can help you identify the patterns and behaviors that contribute to your unhealthy relationship with exercise and work toward finding ways to make fitness a balanced part of your life. Here’s how to find professional help for every budget.
Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.