Not So Healthy After All: What Happens When Aspirational Workouts Give Way To Disordered Exercise?

Five signs you may be on a slippery fitness slope, and three ways to get back on track so you can approach your goals with a healthy mindset.

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We live in a society where spin and HIIT classes are regarded by many as exercise meccas and where advice like “hit the gym” is the official mantra of many in the wellness community. And don’t get us wrong, exercise is integral to healthy living and is something you ought to regularly incorporate into your weekly routine—in fact, current guidelines from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommend that able-bodied adults get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week for peak health. That said, another issue that has to be addressed today is the potential for fitness-conscious individuals to manifest dangerous exercise-related habits. Since society views exercise as a predominantly positive activity—and since exercise is often met with enthusiastic positive reinforcement—exercise-related disorders often go undetected. “Unfortunately, I think exercise-related disorders, or people that participate in excessive exercise, are more common than we realize,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a health-and-wellness psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU’s School of Medicine. “Many of these individuals are probably not seeing their symptoms or behaviors as problematic, as they see exercise as something they have in control, or as a coping mechanism, or something making them feel better about themselves.” It’s essential to build awareness around disordered exercise habits so that you can recognize unhealthy approaches to exercise—either in yourself or in others you know and love. With expert guidance, we explore potential indicators that something’s not quite right with all that exercise (or its intensity), plus advice that will help anyone with redirecting habits gone too far in favor of achieving a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.

5 Signs That You Might Be on an Iffy Exercise Trajectory

The following are all indicators of possibly disordered exercise habits. Read through them carefully and with an open mind to see if any apply to your (or a loved one’s) relationship with exercise.

1. When It Takes Over Your Life

Goldman says that the main symptom of excessive exercise is when fitness becomes the top priority in someone’s life—to the point that it disrupts their livelihood and relationships. She says specific signs of this include:

  • Avoiding social or work responsibilities in order to exercise
  • Exercising regardless of being sick or injured
  • Adhering to a strict exercise regimen that does not allow flexibility for life and other responsibilities
  • Hiding the amount of exercise that’s being participated in
  • Exercising in secret

Sports psychologist Ariane Machin, PhD, agrees. If a person sticks to their exercise routine at all costs, that’s a huge indicator that their priorities are misaligned. Other signs of possible exercise-related disorders include missing commitments with loved ones, blowing off social obligations, failing to meet deadlines, or spending excessive amounts of money on health-related items and failing to pay important bills because of it. “These are people who are primarily focused on their workout and needing to follow through with it. This is harmful because this rigid thinking will lead to guilt or shame when these unrealistic expectations cannot be met, and the person will be missing out on important events and functions in their life,” says Machin.

2. Becoming Obsessed with Number Tracking

Step trackers, running apps, and calorie calculators are all wonderful devices that can help motivate us to keep up with our fitness goals. Unfortunately, issues can arise when tracking becomes a stressful obsession. “While initially tracking our behaviors can be an excellent tool to gain feedback about what we are doing well and what we need to improve on, some individuals can become obsessed with the monitors,” says Machin. “When they have not met their own standards, [they may] feel anxious, frustrated, and depressed even if they have done a great job. This is not a healthy cycle and will only contribute to feelings of low self-worth and negative mood as it continues.”

3. Exercising Against the Doctor’s Orders

Many recognize that when you have a bum ankle, high fever, or crippling cold, the body needs time to rest. Those who push through such ailments in the name of an extra or “essential” workout are demonstrating signs of disordered priorities. This could, of course, lead to further injury or illness, put the individual at further physical risk due to the added demand on the body, [and even cause] potential malnourishment,” says Goldman. Additionally, there are some cases where a doctor recognizes that a patient is over-exercising and advises him or her to adjust their routine accordingly. If someone has a difficult time following this clear-cut advice, that, too, indicates that they’re struggling with disordered exercise habits. Goldman notes that “excessive exercise has many health risks, including potential heart problems, osteoporosis, amenorrhea [loss of periods], dehydration, reproductive problems, as well as increased risk for injury and fractures.”

4. Re-Upping Your Exercise Tolerance

Another key sign your exercise habits have become unhealthy is if you keep trying to outdo yourself without listening to your body in the process. “The exercise-addicted individual will increase tolerance to the exercise, having to increase it more and more to achieve the desired accomplishment or ‘buzz,’” says Lori Shemek, PhD, a psychologist and certified nutritionist. “Absence of the exercise [may] create anxiety, irritability, sleep issues, or stress. Another sign includes not feeling in control—such as wanting to reduce exercising but failing to—and spending time feeding the addiction [while] other areas in their life suffer.” People who are struggling with disordered exercise habits may even begin hiding their aggressive exercise routines from others. If you’ve experienced this, it’s important to ask why you’re keeping this part of your life hidden away from friends and family. “Anything that we are doing in secret, that we would not do in front of others, has a sense of shame or embarrassment attached to it. Deep down that individual knows it is problematic,” says Goldman.

5. Not Cutting Yourself Any Slack

Adhering to a strict exercise regimen is often heralded in our exercise-conscious world, but if you cannot allow yourself some slack—and if negative thoughts creep in when you aren’t “perfect”—it’s time to reassess. “It’s problematic when a person feels extreme guilt and frustration when having to miss a workout for whatever reason,” says Machin. “The individual may also reduce their caloric intake that day as well because they haven’t utilized any calories from exercise.” “This could be considered a warning sign because we don’t want to base our happiness and food intake each day on whether we have had a good workout. This is trending toward an unhealthy relationship with exercise, and it may be a good idea to reevaluate the role exercise is taking in your life.” Ultimately, anything that becomes too restrictive or rigid, even exercise, can wind up a dangerous, slippery slope.

Ways to Fix the Problem and Foster Healthy Fitness Habits

If any of the above indicators feel familiar—or if you simply want to ensure you approach your fitness routine with a healthy mindset—follow this advice from our experts.

1. Acknowledge that there’s an issue.

This is the hardest step to take, but if you’re here reading this, you’re already on the right path. Simply knowing there’s a problem and being willing to work on it is a huge part of the battle. “Like any excessive behavior or obsessive thought, the key is to work on one’s behaviors, cognitions, and self-acceptance,” says Goldman. “One needs to get away from this ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Once people can accept that their behaviors are problematic, and then see that they will not gain weight or [feel like] anything bad will happen if they change their behaviors, then it will become easier to overcome this.” As you work to find balance in your world, identify and eliminate triggers (such as certain Instagram accounts, fitness classes, or foods that prevent you from maintaining moderation), carefully monitor your thoughts, and set realistic goals for yourself. “Engage in curiosity around your relationship with your body, food, and exercise. Are each of these things in your life fueling you in healthy ways? Are there things you would want to change about them?” advises Machin. “The first step to helping ourselves is being aware we have a problem and wanting to do something about it. This exploration will bring awareness to your dynamics.”

2. Enlist some help.

It is not easy to change thoughts or behaviors on a whim, so recognize that this process will take time. Having support and encouragement from friends and family and enlisting professional help can help you along the way. “With the help of a professional—ideally [someone] trained in cognitive behavior therapy—one can learn skills to use when they feel the urge to exercise, the skills to use to challenge the cognitive distortions related to the excessive exercise, and they can learn to be more in tune with their body and their body’s needs,” says Goldman. “In time, these individuals, similar to those that have suffered with eating disorders, will feel a sense of relief as these thoughts and behaviors won’t be consuming their life or daily routine any longer. I often hear patients telling me they have found ‘freedom’ and feel ‘in control,’ whereas they felt like they ‘had’ to do this before.” A professional trainer who can help you stay on track and reach your goals in a healthy, encouraging way may also be beneficial.

3. Invest in other parts of your life.

If you recognize a need to reduce the amount of time spent exercising, that is a huge step. That said, it’s important to fill that empty space with other meaningful hobbies and activities. “Similar to emotional eating, we can’t just expect people to sit around when they used to turn to food during those times. Similarly, if we tell someone to just exercise less, or refrain from exercise, then the individual should do something else in place of it,” says Goldman. Now is the time to reinvest in things that are important to you. Focus on work, hobbies, and your family and social life. You may even consider joining a club or group, or attending recurring events, such as a book club meeting, trivia night, board game day, dinner with friends, or the like.

Below the Surface

People who exercise religiously and carefully monitor their food intake are often lifted up as those who have the most willpower, who are “health warriors” and leaders, and who are top-tier athletes. They may even have an aspirational physique to go along with these assumptions and appear to be in perfect health. While this is certainly true for many, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always the case. As outlined above, disordered exercise habits can take a toll on your physical and mental health, and can even be damaging to your work, family, and social life. As is the case with everything, finding balance, identifying problems, asking for help when you need it, and learning to love yourself are the keys to success and, more importantly, happiness.   

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