Compulsive Exercise Disorder

Compulsive Exercise Disorder, aka anorexia athletica, is when a person becomes addicted to exercise. It is often difficult to detect whether someone is getting healthy exercise, or has become obsessed or addicted to exercise. This article will help define exercise disorders.

Also known as compulsive activity disorder, obligatory exercise, or anorexia athletica, compulsive exercise disorder occurs when a teen is addicted to exercise. Although compulsive exercise disorder can be hard to distinguish from healthy athleticism, it is important for family and friends to know the warning signs of compulsive exercise disorder in teens so they can help teens who are affected by it get help.

Exercise has many positive benefits for teens. It helps them strengthen their body and mind, avoid obesity, and keep a positive mood. When a teen becomes addicted to exercising, however, it can have negative consequences for their body and mind.

Because many healthy teens enjoy exercising or sports, and may train hard to stay in shape, it can be hard to recognize compulsive exercise disorder. There are some signs that a teen has crossed from healthy exercise to compulsive exercise, such as if he or she:

  • No longer enjoys exercising, but instead seems to feel forced to do it
  • Plans his or her life around exercising
  • Gets angry or upset if his or her exercise routine is interrupted
  • Gives up other fun activities to exercise or withdraws from friends
  • Has trouble being still, or fells like he or she always has to be moving
  • Keeping careful records of the amount he or she exercises, and obsessing over doing more or better
  • Is never happy or satisfied with a performance or accomplishment
  • Always seems fatigued
  • Is depressed
  • Neglects schoolwork or responsibilities
  • Loses an extreme amount of weight

Teens with compulsive exercise disorder often exercise to feel more in control of their lives. They may base their sense of self-worth on their athleticism, or they may exercise to escape from feeling pressured at home, at school, or in sports. The disorder can affect boys and girls, but it is more common in teen girls. Though not all teens with compulsive exercise disorder have an eating disorder, it is fairly common for a teen to suffer from both.

Some of the risks of compulsive exercising include:

  • Dehydration from not getting enough liquids when exercising
  • Damage to bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments, especially when the teen keeps exercising when they have an injury
  • Breakdown of muscle, especially when the teen isn't eating enough to compensate for the amount of exercise
  • In girls, a hormone imbalance that can cause problems with menstrual cycles and osteoporosis
  • Causing dangerous stress on the heart
  • Insomnia
  • Always feeling tired
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor school performance
  • Poor relationships with others
  • Low self esteem

If you think your teen has compulsive exercise disorder, talk to him or her about your concerns. Teens who have compulsive exercise disorder need professional treatment to overcome their exercise addiction and regain a healthy balance and outlook on life. A doctor can monitor a teen's physical wellbeing, while a therapist can help a teen develop a healthier attitude toward exercise and a better sense of self worth. A dietician may help a teen who also has an eating disorder. Most teens who seek help are able to overcome this disorder. Parents who are worried about the cost of such help or don't have insurance can talk to a doctor or community health organization to find out what assistance is available to them.

Parents can help teens with compulsive eating disorder by:

  • Being patient during their recovery, as changing habits and mindsets can take months or years
  • Setting a good example by not making negative comments about anyone’s body shape, weight, or athletic ability, even in teasing
  • Finding fun activities to do together as a family, like going on hikes or bike rides
  • Preparing healthy meals and eating together as a family
  • Praising and encouraging teens' successes without putting pressure on them
  • Being a support for teens by focusing on their positive qualities and letting them know you love them regardless of their accomplishments


Nemours Foundation, KidsHealth for Parents, "Compulsive Exercise" [online]

University of Pennsylvania, Office of Health Education, "Compulsive Exercising" [online]

Related Article: Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) >>