Compulsive Exercise Symptoms and Treatment

by | Eating Disorder Recovery

For many, healing their relationship with food and body includes healing their relationship with exercise. This blog will discuss some compulsive exercise symptoms and treatment methods.

In our diet culture, food and body are viewed negatively. For instance, we’re told to “eat this but not that”.  As well as being told that certain bodies (thin bodies) hold more worth than other bodies (fat bodies).

The way our culture talks about exercise is also steeped in diet culture. As a result, individuals struggle with their relationship with exercise.

If you believe you’re struggling with compulsive exercise, have pride in doing research to get help. Knowing compulsive exercise symptoms and treatment is possible. Read on to find out more. 


Compulsive exercise is not a recognized DSM-5 diagnosis. However, it’s part of many people’s eating disorders. You don’t need a diagnosis for your struggle to be valid. Usually when people compulsively exercise, they also struggle with their relationship with food and body. Therefore, healing often requires a more broad discussion. Consisting of body image, food, and exercise. 


 What are compulsive exercise symptoms?

  • Exercising even if you feel sick or injured. 
  • Exercising even if you have plans later. This could include getting up early or staying up late. 
  • Feeling very guilty about skipping a day. 
  • Increasing your exercise on other days of the week if you miss a day. 
  • Exercising gives you permission to eat certain foods. 
  • You exercise more than your friends. 
  • There are only certain kinds of exercise that “count”. For example, running may “count” as exercise. But going for a relaxed walk does not “count”. 
  • You are underfueling for your exercise.
  • Loss of a menstrual cycle.


Please note: this blog isn’t intended for diagnostic purposes. If you think yourself or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. Or disordered eating. Please contact us for help. We’d love to work with you individually. Or provide you with resources for recovery.


What are compulsive exercise treatment options? 


Adequate fueling


When healing from compulsive exercise, it’s important to assure that the body is getting enough nutrition. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of fuel needed if you’re exercising regularly. Working with an eating disorder dietitian can help you learn how to appropriately fuel. Getting adequate nutrition can prevent future injuries. As well as heal current ones. 


Taking rest days 

The body needs to rest! Taking rest days (or even taking a break from exercise completely) has two purposes. First, overtraining and underfueling leads to many consequences. Such as injuries. And overall bodily stress. Therefore, by increasing the amount of rest days, you’re allowing your body to repair itself.

Second, rest days allow you to challenge the eating disorder voice. It’s important to realize that exercise isn’t the thing that is “allowing” you to eat. Part of intuitive eating is learning how to give yourself permission to eat. Even if you haven’t moved on a particular day. Some challenges you can do on a rest day include:

  • Eating dessert.
  • Going out to a restaurant.
  • Enjoying 3 meals. As well as 3 snacks.
  • Getting seconds at a meal.


“Movement” instead of exercise


At Courage to Nourish, we prefer the word “movement” instead of “exercise”.  The word exercise is met with rigid expectations. On the other hand, movement is a more gentle, flexible word. There are SO many different ways to move your body. Especially in a way that you enjoy. For instance: Yoga. Walking. Frisbee. Playing with pets or kids. Jogging. Strength training. Bike rides. Cleaning. These are just a few examples. Any way you choose to move your body is valid.

Having a positive relationship with movement means you have minimized judgements of what “counts” as exercise. And what does not “count”. When in recovery from compulsive exercise, it can be helpful to experiment with different kinds of movement. You may want to reflect on what eating disorder thoughts pop up. And how your body feels afterwards. 


Discuss how exercise relates to body image


Do you have better body image on days you exercise vs. days you don’t? This means that exercising is shaping the way you feel about your body. In treatment, we want to learn how to appreciate the body outside of any external factors. We’re learning that our bodies are naturally good. And that we have to respect our bodies. Regardless of how we feel about them on any particular day.

Courage to Nourish created a Body Image Workbook. Head to our resources page to download it! Use it in session with your eating disorder dietitian or therapist.  


How can a dietitian who specializes in compulsive exercise support you?

Courage to Nourish are eating disorder dietitians located in College Park and Columbia, Maryland. As well as Alexandria, Virginia. We see clients virtually across  Maryland, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and DC. We are dedicated to healing compulsive exercise symptoms and treatment help. We support our clients in healing their relationship with food, body and exercise. Head to our contact us page to schedule a discovery call. We’d be happy to make an appointment with you. Or direct you to resources in your area.

Also, sign up for our client or clinician newsletter!


Alex Raymond, RD, LD, CEDRD

Alex Raymond, RD, LD, CEDRD-S

Helping my clients cultivate meaningful connections and interests outside of their eating disorder is a true passion of mine. I like to think my clients and I are on a team to navigate recovery. I love working with high school and college students as well as athletes seeking to have a better relationship with exercise. I am a proud anti-diet dietitian and work with my clients through a Health At Every Size © and intuitive eating framework.

Body Image Workbook


The Body Image Workbook