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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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What are the symptoms of exercise addiction?

Exercise addiction has yet to be formally recognized as a mental condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But that doesn't mean the behavior isn't problematic.

Many members of the medical community have likened excessive exercise to other medically recognized behavioral addiction disorders, including gambling addiction.1 And some studies imply that as many as three percent of people who work out regularly may experience exercise addiction.2

Regardless of its official status, doctors, scientists, and physical and mental health professionals have long been logging the signs and symptoms of exercise addiction. Learning more about the issue can be a great way to recognize exercise addiction symptoms in yourself or a loved one and seek out appropriate treatment.

 minute read
Last updated on 
July 5, 2024
July 5, 2024
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In this article
exercise addiction rate chart

Physical signs of exercise addiction

One of the most dangerous aspects of exercise addiction is that it often hides in plain sight. Many forces in Western culture glorify excessive exercise, or exercising to achieve a specific body weight or shape, which can lead to disordered thinking about the behavior.

Someone who's struggling with exercise addiction may also experience positive reinforcement around their behavior, be told that they look great, or be applauded for their dedication to physical fitness.

And while it is important to stay physically active, exercise addiction is a more extreme version of working out, driven by an unhealthy mental fixation. Signs of exercise addiction are often subtle, but many of them can be outwardly observed.

Physical tolerance
Chronic soreness or injuries

Emotional and behavioral signs of exercise addiction

Since exercise addiction is oriented around something typically considered healthy, it can be easy to miss the emotional and behavioral signs of the disorder.

But like most forms of addiction, there are telltale signs, generally appearing most starkly when the behavior gets to the point of interfering with daily routines and activities. 

“Obsessive” exercise schedule

One of the biggest difficulties in defining exercise addiction is discerning the difference between exercising frequently and engaging in legitimately addictive behavior. 

To help draw a clearer line, scientists consider exercise addiction to occur once the behavior becomes:1

  • Impulsive: Driven only by the desire for reward, with little thought of potential negative impacts or little forethought altogether.
  • Compulsive: Stemming from ritualized actions, with intrusive thoughts of potential negative outcomes should the rituals not be performed.

This can often result in exercising to the point of sickness or injury or exercising despite sickness or injury.2 The person struggling with exercise addiction would do anything to keep working out, even if it harms them. 

Lifestyle disruptions

As a result of the compulsive or impulsive thinking behind it, exercise addiction also has a high potential for disrupting someone’s lifestyle.

This sign of exercise addiction could look like:1 

  • Skipping work, school, or social events to exercise
  • Fitting in gym visits extremely late at night or early in the morning
  • Choosing exercise over otherwise fulfilling relationships

Someone struggling with exercise addiction also often dedicates huge amounts of time to preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise and will continue to engage in the activity despite the negative impacts it might have on their social life and relationships.1

exercise addiction and eating disorders graphic

Physical symptoms of exercise addiction

Exercise addiction can also be marked by several symptoms.

Medically speaking, symptoms represent the effects of an illness or disorder that only the person experiencing them can feel, so these can be especially difficult to see in another person. But if you're experiencing any of these thoughts or feelings personally, it could be an exercise addiction symptom.

Exercise withdrawal

Like most behavioral addictions, compulsive exercise has strong ties to the brain’s reward center.

When someone engages in workout activities, their brains kick off a cascade of feel-good hormones in response. In an addicted person, however, this feeling becomes an object of fixation, with the person using increasingly extreme measures to get that same response.

Cutting off the source of those feel-good hormones in an addicted person can lead to a number of withdrawal symptoms.6 With exercise addiction, withdrawal can look like anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, or restlessness when exercise levels are reduced or completely eliminated.1

Chronic exhaustion

Those who experience exercise addiction either have a fixation on working out or do so compulsively. In either scenario, this leaves out much time to consider rest.

Chronic exhaustion often crops up in response as one of the symptoms of exercise addiction. This can also make it harder to heal from injuries or recover sufficiently from workouts.5

Emotional and behavioral exercise addiction symptoms

Symptoms of a disorder aren’t only physically felt by the person experiencing them. In many cases, especially with behavioral addiction disorders, the difficulties the person is going through can manifest emotionally or socially, including with exercise addiction.

Inflexible thinking

A rigid routine, ritual, or system of thought is a common sign across many different types of addiction, and exercise addiction is no exception.

Some studies have found that people struggling with exercise addiction tend to exhibit inflexible thinking when it comes to either their exercise routine itself or the importance of exercising.6,8 As with other addictions, this type of rigidity can lead to an unfortunate positive feedback loop, further reinforcing the person’s ideas as their life is changed more to reflect their priorities.7

From the outside, this symptom of exercise addiction may look like someone becoming extremely upset or distressed if their routine is interrupted.

Changing attitudes towards exercise

Most likely, a person who ends up struggling with exercise addiction will start genuinely enjoying exercise.

Physical movement is important and can be enjoyable or even joyful. But when exercising strictly to achieve a certain body weight or shape or to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay, the activity can feel more like a duty or even a burden.

In some cases of exercise addiction, physical movement may feel more like a compulsion: something the person feels very strongly that they need and can't feel relaxed without. Many people struggling with exercise addiction begin to feel anxiety or guilt about not exercising—difficult feelings in and of themselves and issues that can further compound the problem.1

When to get help for exercise addiction

Exercise addiction can be difficult to identify and even more difficult to convince someone they need help with. But doctors and scientists have developed a chart that might help others recognize the differences between a healthy routine and what might be a step too far.2

  • Healthy exercise: The first “tier,” someone practicing healthy exercise is motivated by health. It feels good to exercise. Exercise, in these cases, adds to their quality of life.
  • At-risk exercise: Someone might be considered “at risk” if they use exercise primarily to control their anxiety or other unpleasant moods.
  • Problem exercise: This level of concern is defined by someone who might exhibit continued exercise-induced injuries or schedule their days around exercise.
  • Exercise addiction: The final iteration is when it becomes necessary for someone to exercise to avoid guilt or anxiety. Exercise persists despite illness or injury and interferes with daily life functions.
Get help for exercise addiction

If you think you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of exercise addiction, it’s time to seek help.

We provide compassionate care through our remote treatment programs, personalized to each individual. Our clinical care team will work with you on goals, strategies, hopes, and fears around your disordered eating. Call our admissions team now to get started.

Call for help

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International journal of environmental research and public health, 8(10), 4069–4081.
  2. How to Identify an Exercise Addiction and Intervene. (2018, September 28). Northwestern University. Accessed March 2024.
  3. Caru, M., Poulnais, S., Gorwood, P., Kern, L. (2022). Exercise addiction, pain and injuries in amateur athletes. Sport Sciences for Health, 18, 1253-1261.
  4. Rhabdomyolysis. (2019). Centers for Disease Control. Accessed February 2024.
  5. Landolfi, E. (2013). Exercise Addiction. Sports Medicine, 43, 111-119.
  6. Alcaraz-Ibanez, M., Aguilar-Parra, J., Alvarez-Hernandez, J. (2018). Exercise Addiction: Preliminary Evidence on the Role of Psychological Inflexibility. Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 199-206.
  7. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. (2003, July). The Influence of Self-reported Exercise Addiction on Acute Emotional and Physiological Responses to Brief Exercise Deprivation.
  8. Warner, R., Griffiths, M. (2006). A Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Exercise Addiction: An Exploratory Study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 13-26.


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