We're always told that exercise is good for us. It decreases our risk of certain diseases, improves our fitness and makes us stronger. No one can deny the research that shows us just how important exercise is and how it should be a part of everyone's lives. So how could it ever be 'unhealthy' for us? How can there ever be such this as 'too much' exercise? Just like with eating disorders, it's not uncommon for people to develop disordered relationships with exercise.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) refers to certain exercise-related mental health disorders (1), although disordered relationships with exercise are not limited to these diagnoses.

The first of these disorders is Anorexia Athletica, which is characterised by a constant need to exercise with the sole aim being constant and sustained weight loss (2). Here, exercise will take over the individuals' entire life to the extent that it can affect their relationships, work and ultimately their quality of life. Common symptoms include (but are not limited to): a constant need to exercise (verging on addiction), feeling significantly guilty if you miss scheduled exercise, putting exercise above everything else in your life, and exercising in secret to hide your habit.

A second exercise-related mental illness is Exercise Bulimia. Similar to the eating disorder Bulimia, Exercise Bulimia involves the purging of calories. An individual will binge but, rather than making themselves sick, they will perform exercise to eradicate the calories consumed (3). Often the individual will not stop exercising until their watch tells them they've burned the same amount of calories that they ate. Common symptoms include (but are not limited to): exercising even when sick and injured, refusal to eat if they cannot exercise, intense fear of resting and significant anxiety if their exercise routine is disrupted. Much like Anorexia Athletica, Exercise Bulimia can have a serious impact on personal relationships, physical health and the individual's everyday life.

If you think you, or someone around you, is displaying signs of either Anorexia Athletica or Exercise Bulimia then please seek help, or guide your friend/family member to do so. There is no shame in admitting than you are struggling with your relationship with exercise and getting help will be the most important thing you can do for yourself.

It's also important to note that an unhealthy relationship with exercise isn't limited to these extremes. Compulsive exercise is not recognised by the DSM-5 as a mental disorder, but can be equally as damaging (4). Common symptoms include:

  • Suffering with anxiety, depression or severe guilt if you cannot exercise.

  • Maintaining an excessive exercise routine even if injured or ill.

  • Not enjoying rest.

  • Using exercise as permission to eat (e.g. "I went to class this morning so that means I can have a takeaway now")

  • Hiding exercise.

  • Withdrawal from family and friends as a result of exercise.

  • Exercising only to control the way you look.

  • Determining a good workout by the calories burned on your fitness tracker/being preoccupied by the amount you burned and comparing to others.

Unhealthy relationships with exercise are often borne from a persisting toxic fitness culture which revolves around exercise and its relationship with weight loss and body image. It's not uncommon for people to adopt this toxic culture, for example, seeing the sole purpose of exercise as weight loss or believing that "fitness" has a look ('thinness') (1). If you think you might be developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise then ask yourself: are you only exercising to control your body? Do you actually enjoy exercise? What would happen if you didn't exercise for a week? If you think your answers display any of the symptoms indicated above, reach out to a friend/family member/someone you trust to talk about it. Seeking professional advice is also a great idea to help to achieve a better relationship with exercise.

What does a healthy relationship with exercise look like?

  • Exercising because it makes you feel good and you enjoy it.

  • Going to classes to build social relationships e.g. attending with friends.

  • The intent around your exercise is not solely based on body composition goals.

  • You don't have an issue with skipping exercise if you have other plans or you're tired/injured.

  • Understanding that exercise doesn't need to be strenuous and burn loads of calories to be exercise. It's just about moving our body.

  • We recognise that rest and recovery is also an important part of our exercise routine.

  • You can exercise without having your fitness tracker on and not feel like "it doesn't count".

If you need help and support around any of the issues highlighted in this article please speak to someone you trust, a healthcare professional or head to one of the links below:





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