How to Help Someone With an Exercise Disorder


We all probably have one friend who loves the gym. Whether she’s taking a spin class, running on the treadmill, or lifting in the weight room, she seems to spend most of her time working out. However, when the gym sessions start to exceed three hours and your friend’s body appears to be breaking down, it might be time to express your concern.  

Although prioritizing fitness and including exercise in your daily regimen is one of the major elements of a healthy life, obsession with exercise can be unhealthy. In addition to the physical toll that your friend’s body will take from overtraining, eating and exercise disorders can also be mentally exhausting and prevent normal cognitive function.

So, what do you do when you notice this behavior in a close friend or family member? How can you approach them and help them to see the damage that they’re doing in a way that is nurturing, rather than abrasive?

As someone who has spent the past six months recovering from exercise addiction, I have personal clarity when looking back on the months that I spent constantly obsessing over the time that I spent at the gym. As a high school athlete, fitness had always been important to me. So, when I started hitting the gym for over three hours a day, sometimes twice a day, I thought very little of the negative effects that it was having on my body and my life. When people started to approach me with their concerns, I was defensive and shrugged their comments off as an expression of jealousy. However, in time I have been able to gain clarity and use this insight to help other girls who suffer from this condition.

What Exercise Addiction Looks Like:

When someone becomes addicted to exercise, their need to workout has the capacity to damage all their relationships, career, or academic standing. Their desire to seek opportunities to exercise can cause isolation, seclusion, anxiety, and problems sleeping. In order to make sure that they exercise enough but not be chastised for the amount that they workout, they may become scheming and secretive.

Looking back, I realize that waking up at 6 AM so that I could get an extra 6-mile run in without my already-concerned roommates knowing was an unhealthy behavior. Skipping social events and class in order to get a workout in became a part of my weekly routine, and therefore making excuses and lying to the people that I was close to did as well. Speaking to others who suffer with exercise addiction has confirmed for me that these behaviors are common for people who will stop at nothing to get a full workout in.   

The primary sign of exercise addiction is an irrational fear towards weight gain. Pay close attention to your friend or family member’s behavior. Is she constantly checking herself out in the mirror? Does she always seem to be thinking or talking about food? It might be time to step in.

What You Can Suggest as a Concerned Friend/Family Member:

Chances are, if you try to offer words of advice to someone who you think has an exercise addiction, they may become irritable–especially if you encourage them to stop exercising. Exercise addiction, also sometimes referred to as orthorexia, differs from other eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia because orthorexics are under the impression that they are being healthy–because exercise is good for the body. Therefore, they think that stopping this behavior is unnecessary and may lead to weight gain.

What I’m trying to say is: brace yourself.

The most important thing for someone suffering from an addiction is to admit that addiction to themselves. By approaching them with the ways in which their addiction has hurt you or themselves in the past, they may be able to begin to see the negative effects of orthorexia and work to take the first step.

For many, the first step may be as simple as reading a book or magazine article by someone who has suffered from a similar condition. It was an article in Fitness magazine, in which a girl described how she isolated herself from her peers in order to eat a completely raw diet and train for five hours each day, that allowed me to see the seriousness of my own exercise addiction.

Suggesting professional help may be an uncomfortable task. But, if the condition is serious, there is a good chance that damaging, obsessive thoughts are commanding the life of your friend. Therapy or group therapy is designed to approach these thoughts in such a way that the patient heals themselves through behavioral changes, self-acceptance, and body positivity.

What You Must Accept As a Part of Their Recovery:

Like any damaging condition, there is no true quick-fix. Time and effort must be dedicated to the recovery of a orthorexic patient, and the process may take a while. At first, your friend may be defiant when approached with the idea of taking a break from the gym, or performing a less rigid form of exercise, such as yoga.

Chances are, they will think that even after seeking help they can return to a “healthy” workout routine. However, this is usually not the case. Like a bottle of vodka for a recovering alcoholic, the gym can be a trigger for the exercise addict.

Taking time during the recovery period in order to allow the body to heal itself from months or years of over-training is crucial, and avoiding the gym for a while is one way to ensure that the muscles and mind rebuild themselves in a safe way.

Channeling that time that was once used for the gym into other activities, whether it be work, school, or personal hobbies, is sometimes the most effective way for the former addict to see what else is in the world apart from exercise.

The most important thing will be for your friend to see that exercise is not the only sign of a healthy life, it is just an addition to a healthy life.  

Our Writers

As a sophomore at Loyola University Maryland, Brooke can usually be found with a travel mug of green tea and her running sneakers stuffed in her bag. When she isn’t studying as a Psychology and Communications double major, she can be found on her yoga mat or in her kitchen cooking vegan recipes for her friends and family.

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