When exercise becomes excessive

Traumatic relationships can inflict deep emotional wounds, often driving individuals to seek various coping mechanisms in an attempt to regain control and heal from the emotional scars left behind. One coping mechanism that sometimes flies under the radar is excessive exercise. While exercise is generally regarded as a healthy practice, it can become problematic when taken to extremes. In this article, we'll delve into the signs of excessive exercise as a response to trauma, explore how loved ones can spot these signs, and offer guidance on approaching the subject and seeking help when necessary.


Determining when exercise is excessive

Distinguishing between healthy exercise and excessive exercise can be challenging, as it often depends on individual circumstances. Here are some guidelines to help you assess whether an increase in exercise may be excessive:

  • Frequency: If you find yourself exercising daily, often multiple times a day, it may be a sign of excessive exercise.
  • Intensity: Overly strenuous workouts that leave you exhausted or in pain can indicate excessive exercise.
  • Inflexibility: If you're unable to skip a workout or adapt your routine when necessary, it might be a sign of compulsive exercise.
  • Neglecting other responsibilities: If exercise starts to interfere with work, social activities, or self-care, it's a red flag.
  • Emotional impact: If exercise becomes a source of anxiety, guilt, or obsession, it may be excessive.

Understanding excessive exercise as a coping mechanism

Exercise is celebrated for its numerous physical and mental health benefits. It can help alleviate stress, boost mood, and enhance overall well-being. However, when exercise shifts from a beneficial habit to an obsession, it can lead to adverse effects.

Excessive exercise often surfaces as a way to grapple with emotional distress stemming from a traumatic relationship. People may turn to exercise as a means of distracting themselves from painful emotions, achieving a sense of accomplishment, or reestablishing control over their bodies when they feel powerless in other areas of life.

Recognising signs of excessive exercise

Excessive exercise can manifest in various ways:

  • Compulsive behaviour: Individuals may exhibit a compelling need to exercise excessively, even when they are fatigued or injured. Exercise can take precedence over work, social interactions, or self-care.
  • Physical health issues: Overexercising can lead to overuse injuries, chronic fatigue, and a compromised immune system. Loved ones may notice recurring injuries or persistent complaints about physical discomfort.
  • Mood swings: Those grappling with excessive exercise might experience mood swings, anxiety, or irritability, especially when they miss a workout or cannot adhere to their exercise regimen.
  • Neglecting relationships: Loved ones may observe withdrawal from social connections or strained interactions due to commitments to excessive exercise.
  • Rigid routine: An inflexible and unyielding exercise schedule may become apparent, with individuals finding it challenging to adapt their routine to changing circumstances.
  • Obsessive thoughts: Conversations may frequently revolve around exercise, diet, or body image, and thoughts may become all-consuming.

Approaching the subject with a loved one

If you suspect a loved one may be struggling with excessive exercise, approaching the subject with care and empathy is essential. Here are some steps to consider:

  • Choose the right time and place: Set aside a comfortable and private space for the conversation. Ensure both you and your loved one have adequate time to discuss the matter without interruptions.
  • Use "I" statements: Express your concerns with "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory. For instance, say, "I've noticed changes in your exercise routine, and I'm concerned about your well-being."
  • Listen actively: Encourage your loved one to share their perspective without interruption. Make it clear that your intention is to offer support, not judgement.
  • Suggest professional help: Recommend seeking guidance from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counsellor, who can help address underlying emotional issues and develop healthier coping strategies.

Recognising excessive exercise in yourself

If you suspect that your own exercise habits may have escalated to excessive levels, self-awareness is key. Here's how to assess your behaviour:

  • Listen to your body: Pay attention to physical signals such as persistent fatigue, pain, or injuries, which may indicate overexercising.
  • Monitor your emotions: Be mindful of your emotional state, and be alert to any mood swings, anxiety, or irritability that may be linked to your exercise routine.
  • Seek input from trusted individuals: Consult with friends or family members who can provide an external perspective on your exercise habits and behaviour.
  • Consider professional help: If you suspect you're struggling with excessive exercise, reach out to a mental health professional for guidance and support.

In conclusion, while exercise can be a valuable component of self-care, it must be balanced with other coping mechanisms and guided by a mental health professional when necessary. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3
Written by Hope Therapy & Counselling Services, Offering Counselling, CBT, Hypnotherapy, EMDR & Mindfulness.
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such the 'Hope Agency' was born and its counselling team now offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK.

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