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What to Do If Your New Year’s Fitness Resolution Becomes an Addiction

CU Anschutz expert discusses how the push to get into shape can be a slippery slope

minute read

Written by Laura Kelley on January 12, 2024

One of the most popular New Year’s resolutions involves starting or getting back into an exercise program. The usual marketing and social media focus on “getting fit in the new year” can also have unintended negative impacts on those who already struggle with an often-ignored mental health issue called compulsive exercise (sometimes referred to as exercise addiction).

Below, Laura Kelley, media relations professional in the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Office of Communications, speaks with Emily Hemendinger, LCSW, MPH, CPH, ACS, the clinical director of the OCD Program and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, about this often misunderstood disorder and its harmful effects.

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What is compulsive exercise disorder and why should it be cause for concern?

You might think that wanting to exercise all the time is fine. While some people do this and are happy about it, people with compulsive exercise often feel miserable. They may get some benefit from exercise but will report feeling like they don’t have a choice. They feel like they ‘should’ be exercising or that they have to work out regardless of injuries, sickness or being tired. They feel compelled to do it. What this might look like is an intense rigidity around exercise routines and movement. If someone struggling with compulsive exercise doesn’t work out, they may feel immense distress including feelings of shame, anxiety, anger and even a sense of failure.

What are some of the warning signs that someone may have an exercise addiction?

People may feel that there are ‘good’ workouts and ‘not good enough/bad’ workouts. Sometimes this means the good workouts are ones that are high intensity, long, and burn calories, while bad workouts are slower paced or shorter. This can look different for everyone, but almost always manifests as a rigidity and strict rules/routines around the type, duration and intensity of the workout.

What can someone do if the need to work out becomes obsessive and begins to impact their home, work and social life?

Physical activity is an important part of mental and physical well-being. Instead of going into your exercise routine with an all-or-nothing mindset, challenge yourself to focus on being truly present. Set intentional goals and set limits beforehand. When you notice that urge to go beyond the limit you previously set or to just keep going, pause and ask yourself if that would truly be in line with your values and the bigger picture of your life. Consider what the goal of your physical activity is and what a more middle-of-the-road plan of action could be instead of over-exerting yourself. The key to managing compulsive exercise is to be intentional, mindful and willing to stick with your limits.

Can you discuss some ways people can set these limits, especially during the New Year’s rush?

Set boundaries with yourself. For example, limit the amount of scrolling on social media and consumption of other media. Within a month, it will return to the baseline level of weight loss and dieting ads (which is still an unfortunately high amount). Also, try to let go of rigid rules and appearance-based goals and instead, focus on listening to your body. If you’re tired, take a day off. It’s also important to set boundaries with your loved ones. Ask them to refrain from discussing body size, weight loss, diets, calories, etc. and instead encourage them to talk about health improvement outside of weight/size and extreme diets and exercise routines.

How can someone get help if they realize they have an unhealthy relationship with exercise?

Therapy is always a great step. It also is important to let a family member or friend know what’s going on. Perhaps they can join you in your exercise routine to support you in being more intentional and mindful. Notice if there are activities that you are more likely to do in a compulsive manner. For example, running. Running can feel great (runner’s high!), so it has a high potential to become compulsive, where you feel compelled to do it. Try different activities that focus more on the fun aspects of movement or challenge yourself to do an activity you might feel is ‘not good enough’ of a workout. Focus on creating resolutions that move away from deprivation. Set flexible and achievable goals that ADD to your life, not goals that cause suffering or lead to time taken away from other valued areas of your life.

Is there anything you want to add?

Ultimately, exercise can be a great outlet for stress, but it can’t be the only coping skill you use. Society, especially around the start of a new year, focuses on exercise as something that can solve physical and mental issues. However, this is an overly simplistic and problematic solution because one, it excludes people of different ability and disability status and two, it overlooks the people who are obsessed and consumed by exercise and rigidity. Those are the people who need support in finding coping skills beyond exercise.

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Emily Hemendinger, LCSW, MPH, CPH, ACS