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Excessive Exercise – How a Good Habit Turns Bad

Everyone knows that engaging in physical exercise regularly is good for your body. In fact, regular exercise has been connected to improved physical condition, as well as better mental health. However, there is always a potential for exercise to become an obsession, especially among people who have certain mental health or eating disorders. When exercise becomes excessive, it can actually become both physically and mentally harmful. Below is some information about excessive exercise, its consequences and the treatment options available.

What Is Excessive Exercise?

Defining “excessive exercise” can be a challenge. In many cases, exercising begins as a good habit but slowly escalates into an obsession and/or harmful behavior. Likewise, what constitutes excessive exercise for one person may not be considered excessive for someone else. For example, athletes often spend more time exercising than non-athletes, but their exercise is not considered obsessive or excessive. 

For most people, thirty minutes per day of moderate physical activity is sufficient for optimum physical health. However, that does not mean that exercising more than thirty minutes daily is dangerous in every situation. To determine whether exercise is excessive, several factors must be considered:

  • Does the individual spend an unreasonable amount of time exercising each day?
  • Does the individual exercise even when they are ill or injured?
  • Does the individual skip social events to exercise?
  • Does the individual organize their entire life around exercising?
  • Does the individual exhibit signs of anxiety and/or irritability when exercising is not possible?
  • Does the individual adhere to a strict, highly-structured exercise routine?

If the answer to some or all of these questions is “yes,” excessive exercise may be a possibility. However, only a trained professional can definitively diagnose this issue. If you suspect that you or someone you love could be struggling with excessive exercise, consulting a treatment professional is highly recommended. 

Excessive Exercise and Other Disorders

In many cases, excessive exercise is connected to other disorders. For example, excessive exercise may occur concurrently with bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa or another type of eating disorder. In the case of anorexia nervosa, excessive exercise may function as a method of maintaining a low weight and/or preventing weight gain. In fact, for some people, excessive exercise may be one of the anorexia nervosa early symptoms. In the case of bulimia nervosa, however, excessive exercise may function as a method of purging after the individual has consumed a significant amount of food in a binging session. 

Many people who engage in excessive exercise may also struggle with other related issues, such as body dysmorphic disorder, depression or anxiety. To treat these individuals effectively, all underlying disorders must be addressed in therapy. Otherwise, excessive exercise is likely to recur when treatment has ended. 

How Does Excessive Exercise Develop?

The development of excessive exercise typically differs from one person to the next and will depend on each individual’s unique characteristics. In many cases, exercise begins as a positive habit the individual engages in with the goal of becoming more physically fit. However, as time goes on, exercising may turn into an obsession. Alternatively, in some cases, excessive exercising becomes a strategy used to burn a substantial number of extra calories, as opposed to simply improving physical fitness and metabolism. 

For example, an individual may begin by exercising for 30 minutes each day, three times each week. They may begin increasing the length of sessions slowly, adding 15 to 30 minutes to each session. Over time, the individual may also start exercising on additional days. Eventually, they may be exercising for several hours every day, at the expense of their social life, health and interpersonal relationships. Some people who exercise excessively may even suffer severe physical complications and end up hospitalized. 

Dangers of Excessive Exercise

Continuing to engage in excessive exercise can lead to several potential problems and complications. Some of the possible risks and negative outcomes of excessive exercise include:

  • Physical injury – In some cases, people who exercise excessively develop physical injuries. Because they are unwilling to rest while the injury heals, they may exacerbate the injury even further. Some people who exercise excessively in spite of physical injury may permanently damage ligaments, bones, muscles or tendons. 
  • Weight loss – Excessive exercise can lead to an unreasonable and unsafe level of weight loss, especially when coupled with anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder. 
  • Loss of menstruation – For women, excessive exercise can lead to disruptions in the menstrual cycle and infertility. 
  • Bone loss – In some cases, excessive exercise may cause osteoporosis, leading to brittle bones and other issues. 
  • Severe dehydration – People who exercise excessively are at a higher risk of becoming dehydrated than those who do not. Dehydration can cause a variety of complications and may even be deadly in some extreme cases. 
  • Social issues – Someone who engages in excessive exercise is likely to become withdrawn, often skipping social gatherings and events to exercise. This can lead to problems with interpersonal relationships and general social functioning.  
  • Problems at work or school – Excessive exercise can sometimes get in the way of academic or professional responsibilities. 

Some people who engage in excessive exercise with experience only a few of these complications, while others may experience many. In general, the complications associated with excessive exercise tend to get worse over time. 

Treatment for Excessive Exercise

For many people who engage in excessive exercise, professional treatment will be necessary to resolve the issue. In most cases, concurrent issues exist that make treatment more complicated. For this reason, finding the right professional treatment program is essential.

To treat excessive exercise effectively, therapy programs must typically be customized based on the patient’s situation. For example, treatment for a patient who deals with excessive exercise in addition to bulimia nervosa should look different from a treatment program designed for a patient who suffers from excessive exercise and anorexia nervosa. To determine the best therapeutic course, treatment centers will typically interview the patient to learn as much as possible about their characteristics, background, specific symptoms and co-occurring disorders.

Treating excessive exercise involves not only addressing the exercise issue itself, but also each of the underlying factors and co-occurring disorders. Patients must learn why their excessive exercise is harmful, how it developed and why it must not continue. Programs will also aim to help patients replace their unsafe exercise habits with appropriate behaviors. Also, for patients who have physical complications related to excessive exercise, treatment programs should provide the appropriate medical care. The best treatment programs will focus on improving all aspects of the patient’s life, including physical health, mental health and overall quality of life.

To treat excessive exercise disorders, it is first necessary to get the individual to acknowledge that a problem exists. Unfortunately, many people are hesitant to acknowledge the existence of an issue, even when confronted by friends or family. If you are planning to talk to a loved one about an issue involving excessive exercise, you can improve your chances of success by being as gentle and loving as possible in the interaction. Avoid being accusatory or confrontation, and allow your loved one a chance to make their voice heard too. If the individual is resistant to the idea of treatment at first, make it clear that you are willing to help whenever they are ready.

Choosing a Treatment Program for Excessive Exercise

If you or a loved one is struggling with excessive exercise, professional treatment is the best choice. However, treatment programs vary from one another considerably. For this reason, it is important to evaluate all of the options available in your area so you can make the right decision. 

When choosing between different treatment programs, one of the primary decisions you will need to make is the choice between residential and outpatient treatment. Both of these options have different advantages and disadvantages for patients. For example, someone enrolled in treatment at a residential bulimia nervosa treatment center will be under constant supervision, which means they won’t be able to secretly engage in excessive exercise. 

However, residential treatment also tends to be more expensive, and it requires a greater time commitment. If the same individual enrolls in a program at an outpatient bulimia treatment center, costs will be lower, and the patient will be able to return home between therapy sessions. However, the lack of continuous supervision may make it tempting for the patient to exercise in secret, which will decrease the effectiveness of the treatment program. 

Other factors to consider as you compare different treatment programs for excessive exercise include:

  • The specific services available from the facility – Every facility offers a different array of services to patients. Asking about these services in advance makes it easier to select the right facility for your needs. 
  • The facility’s specialty – Excessive exercise can occur as part of many different disorders. It is important to select a facility that has programs available to treat the patient’s specific disorders.
  • The facility’s reputation – A treatment facility’s reputation tells you about the experiences of past patients, as well as the facility’s effectiveness. If possible, select a facility that has a reputation for providing a positive experience for patients, as well as effective treatment services.  
  • The facility’s success rates – One of the most important factors to consider when comparing different treatment facilities is the success rates of each program. Look for a program that has a high success rate and a low rate of relapse.  

Excessive Exercise Treatment at Monte Nido

If you or a loved one is dealing with excessive exercise as a symptom of an eating disorder, getting professional treatment is essential. If you are looking for eating disorder treatment near you, Monte Nido offers facilities all across the United States to serve patients in all regions. Whether you are looking for residential bulimia nervosa treatment or an outpatient bulimia treatment center, we offer a range of programs to meet the needs of almost any patient. 

Monte Nido offers two levels of care: residential treatment and day treatment. We use a variety of therapeutic approaches to help every patient heal their relationship with food, eliminate undesirable behaviors and live a better life overall. Our treatment programs focus on more than just disordered eating behaviors. We also aim to help our patients gain insight into the thought patterns and feelings that led them to develop their eating disorder in the first place so they can address these issues and achieve a full, lasting recovery. 

When left untreated, any eating disorder puts you at risk of serious complications. Fortunately, effective treatment is available from Monte Nido. Please contact us today to learn more about our programs or to begin the enrollment process. 


Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.