7 Signs You Have an Unhealthy Obsession With Exercise

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The universal message is exercise is good for you. What you hear less often is that it’s possible to overdo it. But being obsessed with your workout routine can take a toll on your mental health and physical performance. A 2015 Italian study found marathoners with an obsessive passion for the sport were more likely to be stressed out and injured compared to those who took a more balanced approach. So how do you know whether your relationship with exercise is healthy or not? Here are seven signs you’ve veered into dangerous territory.

1

Workouts consistently take priority over your social life.

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You’ve had your friend’s birthday party on the calendar for weeks, but you decide to blow it off to hit the gym instead. Sound like you? “If [exercise] starts to impact relationships — if you spend more time training than with other people — that might be indicative of an unhealthy relationship with exercise,” says Bonnie Marks, Psy.D., a psychologist with NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. It can be tough to realize there’s a problem, though, because there are plenty of ways to rationalize your devotion to the gym. If you’re training for a race, for instance, you might see ditching weekend brunches with your friends as necessary, says Joel Minden, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and certified sports psychology consultant.

Read more: Should You Skip Your Workout Today? Here’s How to Tell

2

You jeopardize your health for your workouts.

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Waking up and feeling sick, injured or otherwise not even close to 100 percent and still heading to the gym can indicate something is wrong. People who are obsessed with exercise don’t rest when they clearly need to, says Dr. Bonnie Marks. “When they’re injured, sometimes they’ll just keep going, and it causes them to be injured even more and could lead to overuse injuries, exhaustion, depression or extreme weight loss.” A healthy approach to exercise includes listening to your body when sore muscles are screaming for a day off or to at least take it a little easier. Otherwise, your no-budging commitment to the workout plan could backfire when you have no other option but to sit on the sidelines for weeks as your body heals.

Listen now: How to Turn Anxiety Into Your Best Friend

3

You use exercise to avoid serious issues.

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Many exercisers rely on their runs or gym sessions for “me time.” And while it’s true that working out has proven to be an effective form of stress relief, that’s different than running to escape from life’s bigger issues. “When people are going through depression or anxiety or they’re making a job change, exercise can become an addiction because they are trying to cope with their life,” Dr. Bonnie Marks says. Rather than addressing the core issue or seeking treatment, they rely on the feel-good neurotransmitters that are released during exercise.

4

You’re addicted to the runner’s high.

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There’s a reason the phrase “runner’s high” is so common. “You hear people say things like ‘exercise is my drug,’ and that speaks to the idea that the hormonal response to exercise is reinforcing,” Dr. Joel Minden says. Researchers from the University of Oxford found there’s more to it than just endorphins: A runner’s high produces chemicals similar to those found in marijuana. And while Dr. Minden says exercise addicts might start craving that rush of happy feelings, you know you’ve gone too far if you seek out that rush at the cost of everything else in your life.

Read more: How to Find a Workout You’ll Actually Stick With

5

You track, quantify and overanalyze everything.

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These days, you can track pretty much anything — steps, sleep, workouts, food, water. But Dr. Bonnie Marks sees a devotion to fitness and health trackers as a bad thing if people become obsessed with burning a certain number of calories on the treadmill or weighing a specific amount. Being motivated by these numbers rather than the way exercise makes you feel can indicate your exercise habit has become unhealthy, she says. So if you find yourself fixated on the number of steps you take each day or pushing yourself harder and harder to beat your numbers from last week or last month, it may be time to reevaluate your strategy. After all, you’re more than the number on your scale.

6

You spend way too much time at the gym.

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Long gym sessions every now and again are fine. But if you find yourself essentially living at the gym, step back and take stock. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two strength-training sessions and two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. Although Dr. Bonnie Marks admits it’s tough to pinpoint exactly how much beyond that is too much, she says cramming that recommendation into each day or hitting multiple workout classes in a row is not recommended. And Dr. Joel Minden says to pay attention to whether the exercise habit continues despite evidence that the advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages (such as injury, exhaustion and no time for other hobbies).

Read more: 3 Signs You’re Overexercising and 3 Ways to Avoid It

7

It’s just not fun anymore.

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In today’s era of boutique fitness classes, there are dozens of ways to find the type of workout you enjoy most. So how do you know when you’re going to too many? “When it’s not fun anymore,” says Dr. Bonnie Marks. “Most people look forward to exercise, even if they say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like going to the gym tonight.’” If you’ve stopped enjoying it yet still find yourself constantly at the gym or signing up for classes you dread, it’s a problem. Not every workout will leave you with a huge smile on your face, but overall, you should enjoy your exercise routine.

So what can you do?

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The right solution depends on the severity of your symptoms and the underlying causes. “For some people, it may be as simple as replacing exercise behavior with another activity that satisfies a need or provides balance in life,” Dr. Joel Minden says. So rather than starting the day with a two-hour treadmill workout, you might benefit from a more social, lower-intensity activity, such as a walk through the neighborhood with friends. That strategy won’t help someone who exercises excessively because of a distorted body image, though, Dr. Minden says. They will be better off visiting a clinical psychologist who specializes in exercise compulsion and eating disorders, he says.

What Do YOU Think?

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What’s your relationship with exercise like? Do you work out every day without ever taking a day off? Or do you try to strike a balance? Do you have any tips for making time for exercise without letting it take over your life? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!

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Overview

The universal message is exercise is good for you. What you hear less often is that it’s possible to overdo it. But being obsessed with your workout routine can take a toll on your mental health and physical performance. A 2015 Italian study found marathoners with an obsessive passion for the sport were more likely to be stressed out and injured compared to those who took a more balanced approach. So how do you know whether your relationship with exercise is healthy or not? Here are seven signs you’ve veered into dangerous territory.

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