Exercise and Eating Disorders

Woman jumping onto box
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Though many of us worry about getting enough exercise, there is such a thing as too much exercise. Regular exercise is a good thing, but more is not always better and in some cases, compulsive exercise can be just as dangerous as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.​

Compulsive exercise is just another tool some people use to purge their body of calories, much like a bulimic who binges and purges. In fact, there's even a name for it: exercise bulimia. This condition is not a formal diagnosis as recognized in the DSM-5 (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but it is problematic and cause physical and mental problems.

Exercise Bulimia

Exercise bulimia is hard to diagnose since everyone talks about how great it is to exercise. If you do more, isn't that good? Not if you're taking it too far. If you use exercise to purge or compensate for eating binges (or just regular eating), you could be suffering from exercise bulimia.

Of course, knowing how much exercise is too much is something you may end up learning the hard way, but if you pay attention to your body, there are warning signs that you've taken exercise to the max.


Compulsive exercisers will often schedule their lives around exercise just as those with eating disorders schedule their lives around eating (or not eating). Other indications of compulsive exercise are:

  • Missing work, parties or other appointments in order to work out
  • Working out with an injury or while sick
  • Becoming seriously depressed if you can't get a workout in
  • Working out for hours at a time each day
  • Not taking any rest or recovery days
  • Feeling guilty when you're not working out

Compulsive exercising has to do with control, much the same way people with eating disorders use food as a way to take control of their lives. But, it can turn into an endless workout if you're not careful since most folks never feel satisfied with their bodies or their fitness levels, no matter how much they exercise.

It also gets to a point of diminishing returns, where you're working out more and more and not getting anything out of it. There's only so much we can do to change our bodies before genetics takes over and, at some point, everyone hits a plateau no matter what. Beyond plastic surgery, our genes determine the general shape and body type we inherit and all the exercise in the world doesn't change that. Just like your height and eye color, there are some things you just can't change without external help.

The Danger

Exercising too much is almost as bad as not working out enough. Too much exercise can lead to all kinds of problems such as:

  • Injuries such as stress fractures, strains, and sprains
  • Low body fat — this may sound good but, for women, it can cause some serious problems. Exercising too much can cause a woman's period to stop which can cause bone loss
  • Fatigue — constantly feeling tired, despite exercising and poor performance during exercise
  • Dehydration
  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis
  • Reproductive problems
  • Heart problems
  • Burnout

Some of these symptoms also apply to overtraining but if you're obsessed with exercise and use it as a way to undo bad eating on a regular basis, it isn't something you can tackle alone.

A Word From Verywell

If exercise is getting in the way of you fulfilling your daily responsibilities or enjoying life, it may be time to seek professional help. Many compulsive exercisers find they need therapy to help them deal with exercise bulimia. It's an insidious condition that often needs that outside resource to help get to the heart of the problems and help you find a way out. You can always start with speaking to your healthcare professional or looking for a therapist that specializes in eating disorders or anxiety.

By Paige Waehner
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."