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Over-exercising and exercise addiction

This page explains over-exercising and exercise addiction. Find out how they might affect your body and how you feel, and what you can do to treat and manage them. 

What are over-exercising and exercise addiction?

Over-exercising is when we do more exercise than our body can handle. This can include doing too much exercise or exercising in an unsafe way, or not eating enough food alongside exercising.

Over-exercising is different for different people. One person might feel ok doing a certain amount of exercise. But the same amount could be over-exercising for someone else.

Exercise addiction is a type of over-exercising, when we feel a lack of control over how much exercise we do. And we exercise so much that it has a negative effect on our health and life overall. Sometimes it can happen as part of an eating disorder, but not always.

Over-exercising and exercise addiction aren't official medical diagnoses. But they can happen to anyone, of any weight or body type.  

You might hear people talk about terms like over-training, exercise dependency, or compulsive exercise as well. These all mean slightly different things. But they're all different ways of describing a negative relationship with exercise.

Why do over-exercising and exercise addiction happen?

There are many reasons why we might exercise too much. It could be one reason, or a combination of factors. These are some common reasons:

Pressure to perform or improve

If you exercise competitively, you might feel a lot of pressure to push yourself to achieve better performances each time.

You might also feel this pressure from coaches or other people you train with. Or you might put this pressure on yourself. This might feel like exercise addiction.

Mental health problems

You might over-exercise as part of a mental health problem. This may be to hurt yourself, which can be a form of self-harm. You might also over-exercise or experience exercise addiction as part of an eating problem or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

Over-dependence on exercise

Exercise might start out as a good coping mechanism. But you might over-exercise if you become too dependent on it for your wellbeing. This might feel like exercise addiction.  

This can happen if you don't have other ways of managing your feelings or emotions. Or if you find it hard to express how you feel.

If exercise is your only way of coping, you might want to explore other ways of managing your wellbeing. This could help you exercise more safely.

Being alone with my thoughts was impossible for me, and the only coping mechanism I knew that didn’t cause active harm to me was exercise.

Incorrect information about exercising

There's a lot of incorrect information out there about exercising and diet. This includes online sources, and information shared in fitness communities.

A lot of this information is not tailored to your individual needs. It can make it seem like the same techniques should work for everybody. This could lead to over-exercising.

Our information on finding reliable information online might help you find reliable information on exercise.

Over-exercising by accident

If you're new to exercise in general or trying a new activity, you might over-exercise by mistake.

If you notice any signs of over-exercising, try to do some research or talk to a professional. They could help you make some changes to do the activity safely.

Body image

You might hear messages about what physical features others think are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This may be from the people in your life, or in places like social media. You might use exercise to try to make your body fit these criteria. This could lead to over-exercising.

For example, if you lift weights, you may feel like you need to have a certain amount of muscle mass to be accepted or respected.

Over-exercising and body image can also be linked with body dysmorphic disorder.

Stigma about your weight

Many of us may have read or heard information telling us that we can only be healthy if we're thin. And that it’s possible for everyone to be thin, even though this isn’t true.

A lot of messages about exercise also tell us that it only works if you're losing weight. These kinds of messages are often present in places like social media, in adverts, and elsewhere - including from the health and fitness industries.

Remember: everybody is different. It's not natural, safe or possible for everyone to be the same weight or size. Our bodies all have different natural weights and respond to exercise differently.

But it can hard to ignore these negative messages. And they can feel especially strong for those of us with larger bodies. This might lead us to over-exercise – especially if people around us encourage it.

My friends started to pay more attention to me. They would joke about how awful I used to look. It felt great in one way. But underneath it all, it brewed a fear. I was getting all this respect for changing my body and if I stopped now, it would all disappear.

Normalising over-exercising

Over-exercising can be a hard thing to spot ourselves doing. But it can also be encouraged by others – including medical and fitness professionals.

Many people see exercise as a good thing and think the more you do the better it is. Phrases like ‘no pain, no gain’ can be common in fitness and health communities. These can make over-exercising and exercise addiction seem normal. You might even find people encourage or congratulate over-exercising because of this.

Our page on tips for developing a healthy relationship with physical activity could help others in your life understand the harms of over-exercising.  

Although I love many aspects of running, it also brings out my capacity for guilt and self-criticism. There can be quite a lot of ‘no excuses’ and ‘man up’ type messages in the running world and I really struggle to keep these in perspective at times.

What are the signs of over-exercising?

These are several possible signs of over-exercising and exercise addiction. They can happen to anyone, of any weight or ability. They include if you:

  • Exercise when you're injured or unwell
  • Don’t take rest days or allow your body to recover from exercise, or feel guilty if you do
  • Feel anxious, irritable or upset if you don't exercise, or don't feel you exercised enough in a session
  • Need to do more intense and more frequent exercise to feel the mental health benefits
  • Feel exercise taking over your life and affecting your relationships, work, hobbies and responsibilities
  • Feel low or depressed, no matter how much exercise you do
  • Feel a compulsive need to exercise
  • Exercise in secret or hide how much exercise you're doing

Some of us might not eat enough food for the amount of exercise we're doing. This could lead to physical signs of over-exercising, such as:

  • Frequent injuries when exercising
  • Constipation, bloating, and cramps in your stomach
  • Problems with coordination and concentration
  • Decreased strength
  • Iron deficiency
  • Losing lots of weight very quickly
  • Developing an eating problem
  • Feeling angry or depressed
  • Having sleep problems
  • Irregular or no periods, if you would normally have regular periods

I began to develop a series of soft tissue injuries. I would generally train through the injuries, feeling like I had no choice but to carry on despite the pain and damage, until they became so bad I was unable to move.

What are the effects of over-exercising?

Over-exercising and exercise addiction can have an impact on your mental and physical health. If you experience them for a long period, it can be very dangerous.

For example, they can:

  • Cause injury and long-term physical damage to your bones and muscles
  • Affect your metabolism, which is how your body breaks down and uses the energy in food
  • Lead to behaviour that can be unsafe, such as taking supplements or drugs that have a negative impact on your body
  • Impact how much you can exercise at all, which could mean you need to give up exercise you used to enjoy
  • Have a negative effect on your relationships, mood and ability to function in other areas of your life
  • Become life-threatening – if your body isn't getting enough nutrition, it is forced to break down muscle for energy

Treatment and self-care for exercise addiction

Over-exercising and exercise addiction aren't official medical diagnoses. You might not always be able to get treatment for them through your GP or the NHS. Although they may treat you if you have symptoms of another physical or mental health problem as well.

But there are ways to support yourself and develop a healthier relationship with exercise. You may find these tips helpful for yourself. Or they may help to share with others, such as friends, family, or trainers and coaches.

Review information you have about exercise

There's a lot of wrong and misleading information out there about exercise and body image. Sometimes this information could come from someone you exercise with, like a coach or trainer.

Our page of tips for developing a healthy relationship with physical activity has information that may help you understand your relationship with exercise. It also has tips for professionals that you could share. Our page about finding reliable information online may also help.

Take a break

You might need to stop exercising for a while. This is especially if you are injured. You could use this time to find other wellbeing activities that work for you.

Try to remember it's ok to take a break from exercise for a while. This doesn't make you unhealthy. If you find you can't take a break, this might be a sign of exercise addiction and you may need to seek support.

Make sure you eat regularly and enough

The more exercise we do, the more we need to eat to provide energy to our body.

Try and avoid fitness trends, food trends and diets. These don't have good evidence behind them to support improved performance or health, even if they claim they do.

Skipping meals or fasting can be unsafe if you're doing intense exercise. It should be avoided if possible. But you might not always be able to do this, for example if you're fasting for religious reasons. It's okay if you need to adjust how much  activity you do during these times to match your energy levels.

If you find your relationship with food difficult, our information on eating problems might help.

Change how you exercise

Trying to exercise in different ways might help to change your relationship with exercise, and avoid over-exercising. These are some tips to help:

  • It may help to try a new exercise. Or change the environment you exercise in. For example, changing to somewhere less competitive or with less pressure. Sports like tai chi, yoga or Pilates might feel more relaxed. Changing class or instructor may also help.
  • Try to take a break from competitions or races, if they make you feel a lot of pressure.
  • You might want to change the goals or aims of your exercise. You could focus more on what you enjoy and what makes you feel good, rather than pushing yourself to achieve targets.
  • You could also reduce the time, intensity or amount of exercise you do. This allows your body more time to recover.
  • Take rest days from exercise so you're not over-working yourself.
  • Listen to your body. Have some time off if you need it, or if you’re in pain or unwell.
  • Try to consider what you enjoy about exercise, and why you got active in the first place. If the exercise you’re doing doesn’t meet that need, you can change things.
  • If you feel like you ‘have’ to exercise, try to ask yourself if you ‘want’ to exercise. This could help guide you into activities you enjoy.

Seek help and support

You may need support if over-exercising and exercise addiction are affecting mental or physical health. Or if you feel you can't control the amount of exercise you are doing. You may be also concerned about other mental health problems, such as eating problems. 

Some research suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help with some of the thoughts and behaviours around over-exercising and exercise addiction. Visit our page on CBT to find out more.

Or see our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for information on how to get help. This includes tips for talking to your GP about how you feel. 

This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026.

References and bibliography available on request.

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