Exercise Addiction? Too Much of A Good Thing?

What is exercise addiction? One of the women in my grad studies on Eating Disorders did a presentation on this over the weekend. It brought back a lot of memories of my own exercise addiction, which occurred when I first started my recovery journey — or maybe even before that, from what I learned.

Isn’t Exercise “Good?”

Weight training… one of the ways men tend to develop exercise addiction – or bigarexia
The funny thing about exercise addiction, is that we mask our addiction behind something people think is really healthy – and for some reason, it tends to go unnoticed by most people. We can mask exercise addiction by training for a marathon, triathalon or some other sport. We can also mask it by weight training, which is one of the ways men tend to develop exercise addiction – or bigarexia. Bigarexia (body dysmorphic disorder), is when someone thinks they are too small or overweight and spend hours weight lifting to build muscle. Typically the person has well-developed muscles and thinks they need to be bigger. In any event, exercise addiction often leads to many hours spent in the gym, running or practicing a sport.

The Runner’s High

Behind the scenes, we are getting high on endorphins, specifically, beta-endorphins – which increase our mood. Endorphins are also our body’s natural pain killers — they decrease our response to stress, stimulate the immune system and can have a reduced effect on aging. Additionally more serotonin is created by exercise.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

But there can be too much of a good thing. After awhile, our bodies develop a tolerance to endorphins, so we need more to get the same effects. This can lead to a cycle of exercise addiction. On top of that, too much exercise actually causes an increase in aging, can cause overuse injuries (these can show up years later as well), weaken immunity — and starts to get in the way of other things in life – causing a new form of stress. Some experts say that burning more than 3,500 calories per week through exercise is harmful. I’m not a big proponent on counting calories in food or burned calories in exercise. While it may help in the beginning of recovery (if it doesn’t lead to obsession), it always kept me locked in my mind – with my mind leading my body. Once I developed a better relationship with my body, I was able to let my body (where our intuition is) lead my mind. After all, it’s my body that had to do the work, whether it be eating and digestion or exercise. Back to that in a moment. From a BBC article on signs of exercise addiction:

  • Feeling like exercise is a compulsion, rather than fun
  • Feeling guilty, depressed or irritable when you don’t exercise
  • Feeling like your job, studies or relationships get in the way of exercise
  • Missing school, college or work to exercise
  • Exercising regardless of injuries, tiredness or illness
  • Ignoring the concerns of your friends and family about your attitude to exercise

My Own Experience

According to the signs in the BBC article, I had exercise addiction the whole time I had bulimia – even though I didn’t exercise excessively most of the time. I did, however, feel very rigid about the need to exercise. If I wasn’t able to because of travel, my work schedule, an event, etc., I would feel angry, scared or irritable. I felt like I needed exercise to maintain my weight. That should have been a sign – that need. When I first recovered from bulimia, I started to over exercise, switching addictions. I exercised for hours each day because I was bingeing a lot (although on healthy food that I really needed, due to being underweight). So for over a year, I swung into a different form of bulimia. Obviously I had something to learn from this. I gave up the behavior or bingeing and purging that was considered “bad” and instead, was still bingeing (on healthy food) and purging (with exercise), so it seemed “good.” From this, I learned that you can give up the behavior, but if you still have same thoughts (about weight, about exercise, about not being good enough, about being unloveable, etc.), the eating disorder is really still there. It’s not a surprise that I ended up relapsing after 1.5 years. While I cleaned up my life a lot, the negative thoughts were still there, keeping me in the same prison. I finally realized I had to change my thoughts. This took a lot of practice.

The Thoughts I Faced:

  • Being unloveable
  • Not being xyz enough (good enough, pretty enough, smart enough)
  • Not trusting – myself of anyone else
  • Safety & security – financial and just everything in general.
  • Abundance – felt like there wouldn’t be enough to go around – for me (This led to wanting to eat everything now, in case there wasn’t enough later on. It was a mistake of the intellect that I got from childhood and fearing there wouldn’t be enough attention, love, money, etc. for me).


Once I changed my thinking around all of these things, I started to heal. It took a lot of practice – catching my thoughts, replacing the negative with positive affirmations, reading my vision of how I wanted my life to be, meditating, etc. Every day, I took care of myself in small ways – getting enough sleep, relaxing, doing things that nourished me (non-food related). This is how I healed. At some point, I started to be aware of a feeling of fullness in my torso – filling the place that I used to abuse with bulimia – and it was self-love. This core of self-love was so strong that nothing could shake it. I tuned into it every day, feeling it there – nourishing me. I no longer needed to get my approval from the outside because I had it within. This core of self-love has kept me strong in my recovery, through many challenges. It has created a deep trust that I can live the life I want to live, that I am safe.

What I Learned About Exercise Addiction

What I learned, looking back, is that over exercising only served to keep me from realizing my natural appetite. I thought that might have been the case – that maybe I was bingeing because I was burning so much energy through exercise. It was a little whisper that came from my body – and my mind refused to listen. Now, in my recovery, I realize that little whisper was true, as our body’s voice often is. I now listen to my body about when, how and how much to exercise. It is much less than before. And my appetite is normal. And guess what? There is no effect on my weight. It’s not like the over exercising was really doing anything – but serving to keep me stuck in the cycle of addiction. And making me tired, and making my knees ache and who knows what else. But none of the effects I expected. This gentleness I have now, it allows me to rest when I’m tired and to skip days when I need to. It is teamwork – this mind and body alignment. There is a sense of each taking care of the other, each listening to and honoring the other. In this way, there is no work for me to do. I just tune in and follow – it’s a beautiful place to be.

Your Actions

  • How do you feel about exercise?
  • Is there anything inside you that feels like you may be out of balance with the amount of exercise you do?
  • How is your exercise affecting you?
  • Consider doing the exercise on listening to your body. Start doing this so you can hear your body. It’s okay if you don’t hear or feel anything – keep asking over time. Send your body love so that it will trust you again.
  • Before doing exercise, ask your body what it needs – what type of exercise, for how long and at what intensity. Experiment with doing what your body wants, even if your mind protests. Do this for a week and write down what you learn.
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As a coach, writer and recovered former executive, I understand the challenges of creating a balanced, healthy lifestyle when over-scheduled. In my journey to radiant health, I created a whole health system of eating, exercise, renewal and recharging -- a roadmap toward health & vitality. I empower clients to create their own whole health systems, in their own unique ways. I have seen amazing results in working with my clients!