Exercise Addiction: The Dark Side of Fitness

Exercise Addiction: The Dark Side of Fitness

With my hands covered in blisters and talcum powder, achy joints despite being aged fifteen, and thought racing through my head, I sit and cry in the gym changing rooms. The world is ending. Despite exercising for two hours straight, I didn’t work hard enough. Not enough sweat, not enough calories burnt. Now, my mum is offering to pick me up from the gym so we can stop by Pizza Express on the way home, which implies walking 8.75km instead of the minimum daily goal of 10.9, and eating unknown calories. ‘I can’t, I have homework,’ I text back, despite knowing the evening will be spent doing jumping squats in my room, not preparing for an upcoming Physics test.

This was the reality of exercise addiction for me, a disorder which isn’t recognised by the DSM5 but impacts around 3% of those who exercise on a daily basis. Prior to acquiring a positive relationship with fitness, it overwhelmed my life and nearly ended it. I want to speak about this issue because while anorexia is frequently discussed on the internet and in the media, exercise addiction (which often, though not always, accompanies another eating disorder) is seldom mentioned. The obesity epidemic, and the tendency of the majority of the population to neglect exercise rather than overdo it, explains this yet countless anecdotes emphasise the relevance of excessive exercise in our society.

Exercise Addiction recovery

It has taken a lot of effort to find balance, but every ounce was worth it.

Honestly, I struggled with starting this blog post without tearing up. Overcoming the addiction was perhaps the hardest thing I had to do, and back then I believed it would kill me before I’d scrambled back to balance. I will attempt to keep this coherent, ensuring the post raises awareness, outlines my story, and helps anyone whose relationship with exercise is less than optimal, but I cannot promise the absence of garble due to the emotive nature of the topic involved!

So, what is exercise addiction? 

Keep in mind I am not an expert, speaking from experience and research, but I do not believe exercise addiction to be synonymous with exercising above a certain number of hours. Sure, many sufferers dedicate large blocks of time to their workouts, but attitude is key when it comes to determining if one’s habits are problematic. For example, I currently go to the gym 5-6 times a week and lead an active lifestyle, yet can take ten days off for upcoming exams without second thought. I eat a lot to fuel myself, and fit exercise into my life rather than the other way round. If I really can’t be bothered to work out, I don’t. I certainly don’t cry whenever I am not ‘sufficiently sweaty’ after the gym (i.e., not enough calories burned). Professional athletes exercise much more than I do, but sport is quite literally their career – someone who enjoys art will not dedicate the same hours to paining as a professional artist because it is a hobby rather than the focal point of their existence. Some people, however, exercise less, perhaps three times a week, but force themselves through workouts they hate and prioritise them above other commitments which implies a wobbly relationship with fitness.

Anorexia and exercise addiction recovery

Primary exercise addiction occurs without an underlying cause, but as an outcome of the endorphins released throughout exercise. Just like with other addictions, it may be used as a clutch in times of hardship, to alleviate the distress caused by environmental factors or illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Here, the exercise is the central problem. However, as mentioned above, an eating disorder often underlines the excessive exercise. Anorexia sufferers may use it in accordance with restriction in pursuit of weight loss, and for those with binge eating disorder exercise can be a mechanism of ‘purging’ excess calories. Regardless of the cause and an individual’s motive to engage in harmful behaviour, the signs and symptoms may include:

  • An inability to skip a workout under any circumstances. As I said, you do not have to be running marathons, but if skipping the 45 minute class you’ve planned for the evening brings you extreme distress and you pursue extreme measures to ensure it gets done (e.g., skipping class or cancelling plans with friends), a problematic mindset is apparent.
  • Withdrawal symptoms. A sufferer may experience anxiety, irritability or a ‘jittery’ feeling when forced to endure extended periods of time without exercise.
  • Loss of interest in and a reduction of time spent on other activities. In the depths of my disorder, I would spend countless hours not just exercising, but also getting ‘pumped’ for my workouts, planning them, watching YouTube videos, reading fitness-related magazines and articles. I gave up art, writing, seeing friends. I lost touch with nature. I stopped caring about academia and future prospects. My life was exercise, count calories, exercise, count calories…
  • A compulsion to exercise regardless of injury, illness or mood. As ludicrous as this sounds, many people would rather be in pain than face whatever consequence they associate with not working out.
  • Your tolerance builds up and you may feel compelled to exercise for longer periods of time, push harder, sweat more. Although, this is different to setting performance related goals. This is directly linked to the euphoric feeling associated with the end of a workout / the way in which it reduces anxiety, just like an alcoholic must drink more and more to receive the same mental effect.

Physical symptoms and side effects can arise, of course, which include decreased bone density, menstrual irregularities, low body mass/fat percentage, low energy, insomnia, achy joints and proneness to injury, a poor immune system etc. However, these may take months or years to show up and given that exercise addiction is very much mental, the absence of physical difficulties does not indicate the severity of one’s problem (in the same way as any one can suffer from a severe eating disorder regardless of their weight).

What is my story? 

After I recovered from anorexia for the first time and was dismissed from my mental health care provider, I lived life as a normal, happy teenager for a few months. I restored my weight and started attending the gym 3-4 times a week: nothing excessive. However, as the fitness industry expanded throughout the internet, the idea of a six pack, a low body fat percentage, an Instagram-worthy physique compelled me. I envied the people I saw and driven by my ingrained perfectionism, allowed old habits – calorie counting, portion control, obsession with the number on the scale – to creep back, in accordance with new ones.

Exercise addiction: the dark side of fitness

With hindsight, I no longer blame the big bad internet for all my problems. Some people can dismiss external pressures. I couldn’t. I needed a goal to pursue, something to distinguish myself. Essentially, I needed to justify my existence through achievement, with which a low body fat percentage and an ability to exercise for five hours became synonymous.

I added an odd workout here and there. I adjusted my food intake based on daily activity. I included forms of exercise I didn’t particularly enjoy, such as interval training and spinning, into my routine for an extra calorie burn. The habits spiralled, in particular after I partnered with an irresponsible ‘personal trainer’ who pushed me to exercise more despite an awareness of my low weight, but I reassured myself: ‘It’s fine, this isn’t dangerous. I’m healthy and fit. This isn’t a disorder. Exercise is good for you. I am an athlete.‘ Unfortunately, this trap of denial is too familiar for many people.

Of course, I was no athlete. I exercised to burn calories and lose weight. Seeing a lower number on the scale induced euphoria, and through excessive exercise I aimed for extreme weight loss and a ‘reason’ to eat. Interestingly, in the depths of my addiction, my intake wasn’t much lower than a standard, doctor-prescribed weight loss diet (as opposed to the 200 calories I consumed when I first fell ill with anorexia), but my daily activity rendered it insufficient.

I grabbed every opportunity to burn calories. A run before school in the morning, taking the longer, thirty minute route to the train station, a fitness class after a gym session. It wasn’t uncommon for me to run half upon awakening and follow it up with a two hour workout in the evening. I kept a pair of dumbbells in my room and would circuit train before bed. Sweat and exhaustion, to the point of unconsciousness, were a necessity; otherwise a workout didn’t count. Moreover, apart from doing ‘formal’ exercise, I didn’t allow myself rest and allocated time slots for sitting down while at home.

6.30-7.30: HIIT workout

7.30-7.50 Sit down

7.50-8.30 Evening walk…

Sitting for more than thirty minutes induced extreme anxiety and often I left school early, as well as taking toilet breaks to pace around the corridors. I clenched random muscles and compulsively jiggled my legs. Thoughts of calories, numbers, miles ran reigned within my mind. I started to hate exercise. An athlete may exercise for six hours a day because it is their job, their passion, their purpose. It gave me nothing apart from a body withered away from exhaustion, an empty soul and a bleak existence. Depression and the prospect of dedicating my life to the same routine overwhelmed me and I often broke down during workouts but wouldn’t stop because I had to keep up a heart rate of 185, had to burn calories. Had to ensure I weighed less after a work out than I did beforehand.

How did I break this cycle? How does one overcome exercise addiction? 

Recovery is different for everyone. Many people try for years without success, others recover quicker. In most cases, quitting exercise while addressing the underlying issue is key, alongside a cognitive behavioural approach: doing the opposite of what the disorder says and sitting (quite literally) with the anxiety, avoiding compensation.

Months went by and I lost all my friends because firstly, I had no time to see them and didn’t want to face the risk of eating ‘bad’ foods, and secondly, I was too difficult to be around. Hangry taken to the next level, if you like. My mood could change within seconds. Those poor souls tried their best but our friendship group disintegrated because at a fundamental level, they didn’t understand how a human can purposely destroy themselves and voluntarily live through suffering. Whispers followed me around the school and many doubted my ability to undertake GCSEs. Moreover, our family fell apart. A dark cloud invaded our house and lingered between the few words (usually of a hurtful nature) I bothered to share with my mum and stepdad on a daily basis. My mum recalls feeling powerless: she heard me exercise in ‘secret’ each evening and leave for morning runs but at this stage, no one could save me other than myself.

My eating disorder recovery

The suicidal thoughts, as well as the proximity of my GCSE exams, snapped me out of the routine. Mum referred me back to my eating disorder team soon after she spotted the problem but for months I rebelled against treatment, lied to my therapist, refused to gain the weight necessary to prevent permanent health complications. When she stopped my gym membership, I ran and exercised at home instead while refusing to acknowledge the severity of my problem. I was fit and healthy, remember! Then, one day I came into the treatment centre and after another unsuccessful weigh in, the therapist prescribed bed rest. This meant no school for several weeks, no walking – essentially a house arrest accompanied by a daily intake of 4000 calories. Upon hearing this, I burst to the front door and ran to the train station with the intention of killing myself because the transition from running twenty kilometres a day to nothing, frightened me more than death.

Then, I stopped and thought: ‘Wait, Maria, you’ve officially lost it. Why are you doing this?’ My true voice – rational and thoughtful – had broken through the static of my disorder. This moment felt like an out of body experience and I realised an ideal physique and weight had vanished as concepts; I existed on autopilot, edging closer to an early grave because I’d hardwired myself to function like so. The time to reprogram myself had arrived. As with any disorder, accepting the existence of your problem is the first step to recovery. A sufferer must understand the physical and mental damage created by their lifestyle before making a tangible change.

While some people heal their exercise addiction by gradually reducing their daily activity and settling into a reasonable routine, I stopped all movement, except for a recreational walk three times a week, to give my body a chance to heal and gain weight to a healthy BMI before seeking a balanced lifestyle. In all honesty, I’d recommend this approach to anyone with an unhealthy exercise habit because by incrementally decreasing activity, you may be tempted to compensate and thus slow progress. However, a complete break forces you to face the anxiety, understand that the dreaded consequence associated with not working out doesn’t occur (or if it does, like the weight gain in my case, it is not the end of the world and is usually beneficial), and create a ‘fresh start’ once you return to fitness.

Catching exercise addiction in its early stages is optimal, which can be tricky given the elusive boundary between a healthy, optimal lifestyle and an obsession. Similarly, there is a subjective distinction between gathering motivation for a workout and feeling good afterwards, and forcing yourself through a HIIT session when you’d rather spend the evening watching a film with your family. Yet, by the time clearer symptoms like the inability to sit still appear, the issue is much harder to reverse.

Recovery, of course, is possible. Just like with any other disorder. Reaching out is crucial. Setting challenges for yourself, regardless of how big or small, is intrinsic to progress. Questioning my thinking patterns and rebelling against the disorder, rather than the people wishing to help, pulled me from rock bottom. I struggled a lot with rediscovering my love for physical activity and finding a flexible routine I enjoyed, often taking mini breaks if I noticed harmful behaviours showing their ugly heads again.

Exercise addiction story

I truly believe health requires some form of movement, but excessive exercise or a warped perception of its purposes can be as harmful as sedentary living. Instead of allowing the media to delude us into what we should be doing, we must find our own balance and an activity we can love and sustain throughout our lives, pursuing this at a sensible level. If you love yoga, do yoga. If your passion is cycling, there is no need to jump abroad the Crossfit train. If you’re training for muscle gain, general health or weight loss and not the Olympic games, spending five hours in the gym is counterproductive.

At this stage in my life, I’ve been recovered for just under two years. I have goals and challenge myself at the gym, which I balance with frequent lazy days spent catching up on blogs and writing. I am immune to sources which wrongfully claim that pain and tears are an integral part of a workout. Perhaps, my ability to look forward to the gym as one of the best parts of a given day, rather than dread it, highlights the extent of my improvement from when everything was close to collapse due to a healthy habit spiralling beyond the scope of my control.

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible

Anything can be harmful when taken to the extreme.

This isn’t all there is to say about exercise addiction but I cannot cover all relevant issues surrounding it in a single blog post. Hence, please let me know the topics you’d like me to discuss in the future, e.g. what should be the central purpose of exercise? How should exercise be approached after an eating disorder? How do we determine the ‘correct’ amount of exercise for ourselves?

Thank you for sticking through this quite lengthy ‘n’ personal post (I feel like ‘lengthy ‘n’ personal’ should be a new blog category, lol) and for taking the time to check out my little page in the first place. I am beyond grateful for every like, comment and view: this community is a blessing.

♡ Lots of love, Maria ♡

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Some helpful links which look at the signs / outcomes of exercise addiction:


9 Warning Signs of Exercise Addiction

Anorexia Athletica






  1. September 18, 2017 / 7:08 pm

    This was such an interesting and heartfelt read. My sister suffered in similar ways with eating and exercising when she was younger, so as someone watching it happen from the outside it’s beyond distressing. Glad that you’re doing better 🙂

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:24 am

      Wow I am so sorry to hear that your sister had a similar issue – it’s always so awful and destructive 🙁 I hope she is doing better now! Thank you very much for reading <3

  2. September 18, 2017 / 8:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience and educating us about exercise addiction. I am amazed and inspired by your story

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:23 am

      I am so glad you liked reading this, my aim is definitely to educate people as well as giving hope to those who may be struggling so this is really great to hear! Much love <3

  3. September 18, 2017 / 9:19 pm

    This was so interesting, really gave me a deep insight in what it feels like to have exercise addiction! Thank you for sharing x

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:22 am

      Thank you very much dear, I am glad you liked reading this! <3

  4. September 18, 2017 / 10:22 pm

    Lovely and honest post Maria and so well written. I can relate in many ways and so found your story inspirational – as I am sure others will 😊

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:21 am

      Thank you so much Laura, I am glad you liked it. My aim is to help people who may be struggling with the same type of thing and am very happy to hear that you found it inspirational! Much love xox

      • September 20, 2017 / 10:10 pm

        Thanks Maria – looking forwards to reading more of your insightful posts 😊

  5. September 19, 2017 / 7:21 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is very moving. I never knew that this form of addiction exists. Thank you for bringing awareness!

  6. September 19, 2017 / 3:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this on your blog. I never struggled with an exercise addiction but I used to worry about my weight. I was 7 at the time and I always stared in the mirror and my tummy. I used to think I was fat. This went on for years and by the age of 12, I weighed 30 kilos. I don’t think I was anorexic but I almost was really underweight. Luckily I managed to get back into control and with the help of a therapist (which was actually in school and I just went with my friend because we both had friend problems with a few other kids and only now I realised that it was good that I went). I’m glade to hear that you’re okay now❤️

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:26 pm

      I am so sorry to hear that you went through that especially at such a young age – it’s a really traumatising thing to experience and many are not lucky to get help in time or get access to a good therapist (some can be a bit rubbish unfortunately) 😞 Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting, it really means a lot! 💕

      • September 20, 2017 / 11:40 am

        Yes I agree! I’ve luckily learnt and I’m able to talk about it❤️

  7. September 19, 2017 / 3:16 pm

    That was lengthy but even then you wrote it with so well – but then it comes from deep within clearly – that I found myself reading all the way to the end. That is an important message and I am glad you did not let it get lost in the worry of keeping the post short. Thanks for dropping by my blog, Maria. xx

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:24 pm

      Haha well done for making it through my lengthy ramble 😂 Its such a complex issue and cannot be summarised in a few hundred words, thank you so much for reading and for your lovely comment. It really means a lot to me! ❤️

  8. September 19, 2017 / 5:05 pm

    I am so sorry you went through this! But I am so happy you’re finding balance in your life! So brave to write this post! Good job!

    • September 19, 2017 / 7:22 pm

      Ahh thank you so much for reading and for your kind words dear! Much love 💕

  9. September 19, 2017 / 9:04 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. I honestly began to read this just for the heck of it, but as I read more, I began to wonder if I’m going down this path. Currently I enjoy working out, but I started to workout more because it’s therapeutic. But, now I’m not so sure if I’ve been doing it to avoid my thoughts and feelings. Last week I was debating if I should workout or hang out with my friend. I was about to choose the former, and I got a bit anxious doing so, but I knew that the gym would always be there. I guess I just have to keep myself in check. Thank you again for sharing! Sorry for rambling!

    Natalie | http://nataliesalchemy.wordpress,com

  10. September 20, 2017 / 2:32 pm

    Nice write up !!

  11. September 21, 2017 / 9:33 am

    Jesus, what an intense post! Such a massive hats-off to you for writing it though – and for overcoming both exercise addiction and anorexia. I can imagine they’re both similar in many ways – and I can see how easy it would be to slip from one to the other because (as you’ve said) exercise is healthy. You’re being healthy and an athlete! Things like this definitely need to be talked about more often and you brought the topic to light with such realness and rawness, but also coherently and factually. Great post x

    • September 21, 2017 / 1:10 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment Mia, that really made my day – it’s so great to shine light on an issue that was very prevalent in my life and many people aren’t aware of. It’s kinda like healthy eating can be taken to the extreme and develop into an eating disorder of its own!
      Much love to you 💕

  12. September 26, 2017 / 8:46 pm

    Wow! This was an awesome post to read and a very enlightening one, Maria. You definitely provided food for thought!

    • September 26, 2017 / 9:06 pm

      Thank you so much for reading Agness! I’m glad to hear you liked it – it’s always my aim to spread awareness about these issues x

  13. September 27, 2017 / 3:50 pm

    This is such a helpful post about a subject that should be emphasized to everyone. Especially the teens as they can throw themselves into dieting and exercise without a proper understanding of the risks of not doing it properly. A very interesting read! 🙂

    • September 27, 2017 / 4:04 pm

      That is very true – the media glorifies exercise a lot without really touching on the fact that it can turn into a problem. Thank you very much for reading and I am glad you liked my post!

  14. October 2, 2017 / 8:38 am

    It was so brave of you to share this and I am so glad you did! You’ve really spread the correct message and I’ve definitely learnt a lot. I definitely agree that with this society the pressure to exercise is always high. Personally I love exercises as because of the way it makes you feel instead of doing t because I have to in order to be healthy. Also you look so lovely in these pictures!!

    Harriet xxx

    • October 2, 2017 / 10:04 am

      I am so happy to hear that you exercise because you enjoy it – that is definitely the correct approach towards living a healthy lifestyle and making it sustainable. Right now, I’ve definitely managed to create a routine which is far from excessive and makes me feel good instead of dreadful. Thank you so much for stopping by and for your lovely comment! Have a great day <3

  15. October 15, 2017 / 12:05 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I remember watching a short documentary on YouTube about the dangers of exercise addiction and you’re absolutely right – it’s something that’s not spoken enough. I’m really happy you’re doing well and managed to find a healthy relationship with fitness.

    • October 15, 2017 / 5:51 am

      Omg I actually remember coming across something similar when I was just starting recovery and it made me recognise just how much of a problem I actually had. Thank you so much for reading and for your lovely comment – it definitely feels great to be in a better place:)

  16. October 18, 2017 / 3:32 pm

    Thank you for your testimony. This is so important. I’ve recently done a post about my experience of OCD and how people do not get it doagnosed because they dom’t know intrusive thoughts are a disorder. This seems to be a simmilar problem in thinking, people don’t know about exercie addiction and dismiss it. When I read the part about you crying for not worling out enough, I could not help but see the simmilarity to what I felt during OCD. Thanks so much for this post.

  17. October 26, 2017 / 4:32 am

    Thank you so much for sharing!!! This is a huge problem that is not talked about!

    • November 3, 2017 / 9:11 am

      Yes I can definitely agree that it should be spoken about more! Thank you for reading <3

  18. October 27, 2017 / 8:53 pm

    This post was really amazing to read, it takes a lot of courage to talk about such a sensitive topic. I watched a swedish movie today (Min lilla syster) about exactly what you went through. A teenage girl trains a lot for her ice skating classes, and she slowly falls into both anorexia and exercise addiction. The whole dramatic situation is seen through the eyes of her little sister, the movie and the little girl are really touching. Once again, your post was amazing 🙂 It’s so important to bring awareness on topics like this.

    • November 3, 2017 / 9:09 am

      Thank you very much for reading and for your lovely comment! That movie sounds wonderful and like a really great way to raise awareness.. I can agree that bringing attention to these lesser-known issues is super important xox

  19. October 30, 2017 / 2:39 pm

    Way to open up. I jumped from alcohol to exercise addiction, thinking I was doing a great job. It took a few years to realize that I was just trying to fill another void.

    • November 3, 2017 / 9:07 am

      I am so sorry to hear that happened to you! It really is a tricky thing to notice at first but it can be so destructive..

      • November 3, 2017 / 11:08 am

        Yes indeed. I found the balance after a couple of years though. Good luck on your journey.

  20. November 5, 2017 / 12:31 pm


    As a soft tissue specialist, movement analyst and performance coach who runs his own clinic, I commend your honesty and subject matter.

    I don’t often say this to many people and am not the type of person to usually comment. Spoken from the heart and you have my respect.

    I have a recent post you may enjoy called “I used to be a body builder, before I grew up,” it’s a 6000 word spiel, but it deals more with the clinical element of soft tissue principality, biotensegrity and psychology rather than the generic outlook of “fitness.”

    Give it a read some time if you are ever free. If you like it, if you agree with it, then let’s work on some online ideas together? I have a platform through my clinic and I’m looking for more people’s stories to be able to share for motivation, to help others.

    If not…then take care and keep doing you!

    From reading the comments on this feed you are obviously inspiring people, which inspires me.


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