Overcoming Exercise Addiction

When I talk about my former eating disorder, the focus is mostly on food. Of course, food restriction was a big part of my disorder, but another huge part (if not bigger), was my exercise addiction. When I finally got help for my eating disorder, overcoming fear of food and eating was hard, but the anxiety around that was far less than letting go of my exercise behaviors. What’s really helped is framing my exercise habits for what they were: an addiction.

While it might sound extreme to frame this as an addiction, there has been a lot of research around the similarities between drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., and exercise. They all hit the same neurotransmitters and release dopamine and serotonin. They all have the same behavioral components of salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse.

I never really exercised much as a kid. Maybe a family hike or playing tennis every once in a while, but never “working out” and certainly never going to the gym. That all changed for me the summer before my freshman year of high school, when I decided that I would try out for the cross-country team in the fall. I figured it would be good conditioning for joining the tennis team later in the spring. I started to run a couple times a week up at a local track. It turned out that I had a knack for long distance running and I ended up making the varsity team that Fall.

Workouts were now daily, long, and hard. We had one day off a week and I found myself becoming really uncomfortable with not working out on rest days. I felt guilty, anxious, and restless. By the time spring rolled around I decided to join the track team instead of tennis, and I was running more than ever. I started to work out more, with running on days off, and sometimes twice a day. Then it increased to going to the gym as well, along with tennis and swimming. At the peak of my disorder I was engaging in about 4 hours of exercise a day and still doing sit-ups at night before I went to bed. Things were totally out of control (along with also dealing with anorexia, bulimia, and binging).

I continued to workout to an extremely unhealthy level. Even in college I was spending hours at the gym. Finally, when I started to confront my eating disorder, I had to confront my exercise addiction as well. I realized that the main function of my addiction was that it gave me my “permission” to eat. The only way I felt comfortable eating was if I had worked out that day or was going to “burn it off” later.

Overcoming my exercise addiction as a long, slow, and painful process – healing my relationship to food was nothing compared to healing my relationship with exercise. I lost a lot of time and my life to the gym, and that’s time I’ll never get back. I started Gemmed with my sister, the eating disorder support group treatment center in Los Angeles, to make sure other people don’t lose this kind of time too.

Are you dealing with this too? Here are my tips for overcoming exercise addiction. I recommend you take them one step at a time before incorporating the next one so avoid feeling overwhelmed and giving up.

Are you dealing with this too? Here are my tips for overcoming exercise addiction. I recommend you take them one step at a time before incorporating the next one to avoid feeling overwhelmed and giving up.

1. Talk About It

When you’re dealing with an eating disorder and exercise addiction, you need to involve other people in your healing goals. Who? Your family, your friends, your significant other, a support group, a therapist, whoever works best for you. Keeping this behavior to yourself dramatically increases the likelihood of successfully overcoming it. Sharing not only reduces shame around it (which helps with the secrecy aspect), but it also makes sure that other people keep you accountable. There will be times when you’re tempted to give in and not take a rest day, or workout twice, and you need people who will gently remind you that it’s not in your best interest.

2. Scale Down

If you’re like me, then at the height of your disorder you’re engaging in multiple forms of working out. Pick one, and, for now, stick to that one. We don’t want to be that rigid long term with “only one” form of exercise, but in the beginning you need to focus on just reduction overall. This helps with simplifying behaviors and also reducing the ability to “make up” for things with other forms of exercise.

3. Rest Day Rules

I have major perfectionistic tendencies. If you’re like me, and you’re type A, then you like rules, structure, and predictability (it makes you feel safe, but that’s a topic for another day). Work with yourself, not against yourself, and apply rules to recovery. Be really strict about this, meaning that, even if you don’t work out on another planned day, your rest day is still off limits and not a day to make up for that.

4. Fuel Yourself

Redefine what your relationship with exercise is. Most likely, it’s been about burning calories, and food before and after a workout has been off limits. Eat a snack before you work out to fuel yourself and then post workout to nourish your body.

5. Challenge Rigidity

Incorporate random rest days along with your planned day off. Take a Wednesday off and sleep in. Go home early on a Monday and skip the gym. Take a week or two off as a vacation from exercise. You can’t prove to yourself that you can handle it until you do it.

6. Have Fun

Time to expand from your one form of working out. Be creative! Do a boxing class, watch a dance video and learn a routine, go to yoga with a friend, go on a walk and listen to a podcast, run with an awesome playlist, go swimming, ride your bike, play tag with your little brother, go rock climbing. 

What does my relationship with exercise look like now?

Well, I don’t even call it exercise! I call it movement. I still like to run, but I refuse to engage in competitive running of any kind. No 5ks, no races, nothing. It’s really triggering for me and honestly just sucks the fun out of going for a jog and being outside. I haven’t been to a gym in almost 2 years and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to one. Again, it’s just not enjoyable to me. I always take a rest day on Sunday, and other days as well if I feel sick, or I’m just to tired, or I have to work. Even though running is my go-to and what I like the most, I also do things like ride my bike, take walks, hike, yoga, and dancing. My family and my husband are well aware of my past, so they support me in these goals. I talk about eating and exercise behaviors and beliefs on a regular basis in therapy to keep myself accountable.

Journal time!! Questions to ask yourself to explore this topic further:

  • What is my family’s attitude towards exercise? What effect has this had on me?
  • What is my fear if I don’t exercise? “If I don’t exercise, then _______” will happen?
  • What is the function of exercise in my life? What need is it filling for me?
  • Am I secretive about exercise? Why?
  • What is getting in the way of reducing my exercise?
  • Play the tape forward: If I continue to go down this path, what will happen? What is my life going to look like?
  • What else would I have time for if I wasn’t engaging in exercise?

Does this sound familiar to you? Looking for help? Contact Gemmed for a free assessment to learn how to overcome your exercise addiction and get your life back. We’re an eating disorder and body image support group in Los Angeles, and we’re here to help you. I’ve been through it, so I get where you’re coming from!


xx Annie


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