Time for a pop quiz. Two people are running: Runner A is logging a long 20-miler because she truly enjoys it; running clears her head and makes her feel strong. Runner B is tackling 5 miles — but because she just ate a cookie and feels guilty about it. She's punishing herself and wants to burn off the calories.
Who's more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with exercise?
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If you answered "Runner B," you're correct: To determine whether or not you're over-exercising or getting excessive exercise, you need to look beyond exercise quantity. It's all about understanding your motives, mindset and body.
"Quantity is relative, which is obvious in the case of an athlete whose sport may demand significant conditioning and practice, but who also knows how to cut back when made aware of negative consequences," says Ralph Carson, PhD, RD, senior clinical and research adviser for Eating Recovery Center in Denver.
Those negative consequences include burnout, overuse injuries and the signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise below. Talk to a therapist or eating disorder expert if you display any of these red flags.
Read more: How Does Exercise Affect Your Self-Esteem?
1. You Overestimate the Consequences of Missing a Workout
Skipping a workout — even once — makes you feel guilty or anxious.
"Missing a workout has almost a catastrophic quality," says Sarah Archer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the adolescent program manager at the University of California San Diego Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Center. "You worry that you'll immediately gain weight, lose muscle or fall out of your routine."
Yes, making a commitment to exercise is important — but so is a commitment to your mental health and relationships.
2. You Exercise Even When You Know It's Bad for Your Body
Cross-training when you have an injury is one thing; pushing through when you know it's bad for you is another.
"Even elite athletes need to understand the importance of recovery and refueling," Archer says. "You shouldn't be pushing through pain, blood or possible stress fractures."
Plus, an unhealthy approach to exercise could leave you more prone to injury, according to a March 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Researchers surveyed nearly 250 recreational runners and found that the more "obsessively passionate" runners reported far more running-related injuries than those who were more "harmoniously passionate" in their approach.
Read more: What Type of Recovery Workout Is Best for You?
3. You Exercise in Unsafe Conditions
Are you running through ice and snow? Swimming in a lightning storm? Lifting when you feel sick to your stomach?
Your fitness should never come before your safety and health. "For many compulsive exercisers, nothing comes between their routine — not injuries, sickness, inclement weather or an unsafe environment," says Carson.
Carson says this one is a major red flag.
"A balanced lifestyle means making time to train — but also allowing some flexibility in your schedule," he says.
Ultimately, fitness should be one of the many fun things in your life, including birthday parties with friends, family events and office happy hours. "There should be other things that bring you joy," Archer says.
5. You're Way Too Focused on Burning Calories
Look — we all know exercise burns calories and creating a calorie deficit is an important part of an effective weight-loss plan. But if you're constantly trying to burn off your food on the treadmill quid-pro-quo-style, something is off.
"Purging can take the form of diuretics and laxatives, but also exercise," says Carson. "This is often called non-purging type bulimia," as in, an eating disorder. Talk to a therapist if this sounds at all familiar.
6. You Equate Your Workouts With Your Attractiveness
Carson says thoughts like, I'm going to get fat if I don't exercise today, I'm worthless if I don't run 10 miles or my partner won't think I'm attractive if I don't work out three hours a day are all signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise.
This is related to those catastrophic feelings of guilt and anxiety mentioned earlier, but it's worth repeating: Your workouts aren't tied to your self-worth, attractiveness and even your weight, and making room for other things in your life is always a good thing — for both your happiness and health.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.