Exercising seven days a week and prioritizing your workout over everything else in your life is healthy, right? Not necessarily.

As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, I listen to clients regularly tell me stories that cross the line from healthy exercise to unhealthy exercise. They believe they are doing something healthy, but it’s not the exercise that is the problem, it’s their attitude and beliefs about the exercise that is causing them harm.

Exercise becomes unhealthy when

it begins to negatively impact your life, affecting your physical, mental or emotional well-being. When the only thing you begin to prioritize is your daily workout, allowing all the other areas of your life to suffer.

Definition of "Healthy"

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Healthy is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Because so much of the focus on health is centered on the physical, a person who exercises compulsively is deemed “healthy. It’s a paradoxical situation, because while exercise has been proven to have positive effects on mild depression, anxiety and shows a decrease in Cortisol (the stress hormone), repeatedly placing a high emphasis on the outcome of your workout, and your well-being, in unhealthy.

My clients often have a distorted perception about their weight and body, believing their exercise routine is to blame for their feelings.

They may say, “I feel fat, I haven’t worked out in two days. My pants are tight and I’m uncomfortable,” or “I missed my workout today, so I have to exercise more tomorrow to burn if off”.

How to Know If You Might Be At Risk of Developing An Unhealthy Compulsion to Exercise

Below are common complaints and situations that may indicate you have an unhealthy attachment to exercise.
  • Having to exercise an exact amount of time (60 minutes, not 55) or needing to burn a certain number of calories, or that workout, “doesn’t count”.
  • Becoming overly grouchy, angry or irritable after missing a workout
  • Severely restricting your diet on days that you don’t workout.
  • Only allowing yourself permission to eat what you want if you exercised that day.
  • Feeling extremely guilty for missing a workout and exercising longer or harder the next day to “burn it off”.
  • Planning everything around a workout. If something gets in the way, and disrupts the timing of the workout, becoming very upset, stressed or angry.
  • Skipping important social events (graduations, celebrations, family dinners) to fit in exercise.
  • Not going on vacation because you’re worried you won’t be able to workout
  • Continuing to workout when you are hurt, feeling physical pain or feeling sick. The need to “get it in” is stronger than the need for rest and healing.
Prioritizing exercise and workouts in your life is generally, a very healthy choice. Getting in a run, a yoga class or a Cross Fit session adds longevity, flexibility and muscle to our lives.

When you start to punish yourself because life’s obstacles like family, work and social activities get in the way of a workout,

you begin to cross the line between healthy and unhealthy. These behaviors are not uncommon, but are serious and by seeking the guidance of a professional, you can navigate your way back to a healthy lifestyle. If you find that you relate to any of these, I encourage you to reach out to me or to a therapist you trust.