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7 Signs Your 'Passion' for Exercise Is Actually Compulsive Exercise

If you’re a gym rat, a fervent yogi, or a fitness enthusiast, you may exercise intensely and often. Exercise can be a great way to stay physically and mentally healthy, but how do you know when your passion for exercise crosses the line into compulsive exercise? Here are seven ways to recognize that your “passion” for exercise may be an exercise compulsion.

1. You can’t go a day without exercise — even if you try.

Compulsive exercise is often difficult to stop. If you feel like you need to exercise at least once every day and can’t go a few hours or even a day without exercise, your love of exercise may be turning into an exercise compulsion. Doing what you love can be healthy, and exercise can have many health benefits, but over-exercising without stopping can have serious consequences for your body and reinforce that exercise is something you “need” to do every day without fail.

2. You constantly think about burning calories when you exercise.

If you love exercising, pay attention to your thoughts the next time you hit the gym to deadlift or do your daily cardio. Thinking about how many calories you’ll burn on leg day instead of your form or the muscle groups you’re working could be a sign that you’re slipping into compulsive exercise. If you gravitate towards treadmills or ellipticals with calorie counts or use calorie trackers to log how your step count translates into expended calories, you may also find it difficult to stop exercising. Check your motivation — if you’re ruminating about how each movement you make burns calories, you may be struggling with compulsive exercise.

3. You carefully plan your food intake every time you exercise.

It’s important to fuel your body before you exercise, but if you plan your pre-workout meal down to the macro, you might be exercising in a disordered way. If you can’t seem to change what you eat before you exercise because you want to optimize your workout to burn the most calories, you may have difficulty stopping exercising, especially if you have other eating disorder symptoms as well. Try changing up what you eat before you exercise. If you gravitate toward the same foods before every workout, you might be exercising solely to “burn off” your last meal — not to strengthen your body.

4. You only exercise to change your weight or body shape.

If you often follow up your time on the treadmill with a trip to the mirror or a weigh-in, you might only be exercising to change your weight or body shape. Pulling out a tape measurer or stepping on the scale right after a workout can make you associate exercise with weight loss or fulfilling an ideal body type. The next time you exercise, notice where you choose to go after your workout. If you gravitate towards checking your weight or body proportions, your frequent exercise habits might be mainly tied to weight loss — and they may be difficult to stop.

5. You’re concerned about how much muscle you can build.

Plenty of people hit the gym to strengthen certain muscle groups, but if you spend most of your gym time by the weights or envy other lifters’ muscular builds, your exercise “passion” might be more about body lust and less about your love for fitness. Gearing every workout towards the singular goal of bulking up and measuring your gains can easily become compulsive — especially if you’re seeing the results you want. Try spending time working out different muscle groups than you usually do. If you find yourself thinking about how certain workouts might not help you gain muscle mass, you might be developing a compulsive exercise habit.

6. You only eat certain foods after you exercise.

Having a traditional post-workout meal may seem innocent enough, but if you only allow yourself to eat certain foods after you work out, you might be “exercising to eat,” which is a sign of compulsive exercise and eating disorders. Pay attention to the food you choose after your workout, and notice how it compares to the food you eat when you aren’t planking on exercising. If you only eat high-carb, high-sugar, or high-fat foods after you exercise but otherwise avoid them, your exercise regimen may be more than a “healthy habit” — it may be a compulsion or the beginning of an eating disorder.

7. You find yourself moving even when you aren’t exercising.

Compulsive exercise encompasses far more than what you do in the gym. If you find yourself constantly moving your legs or feet, pacing around the house, or stretching your muscles when you’re bored, you may be moving because you can’t seem to stop. It’s not uncommon to fidget when you feel anxious, but if your “fidgeting” always seems to turn into full-body movement, you may have developed an anxious exercise habit. If you catch yourself moving when you’re feeling anxious, upset, or frustrated, see if you can stop. If you have difficulty stopping your movement, you might have an exercise compulsion.

Exercise can be a healthy way to strengthen your body, but you can’t seem to stop yourself from exercising or thinking about movement, your passion for working out may cross the line into compulsive exercise. Pay attention to your attitude about exercise and your body — how you think can reveal a lot about why you exercise and whether or not you should consider changing your exercise behavior.

Getty image by Jordi Salas

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