With shuttered gyms and remote work came a huge influx of people prioritizing at-home fitness, but has all of this extra time been just what was needed or a gateway to "exercise addiction"?

By Danielle Campoamor
July 20, 2021
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COVID-19 exercise addiction

To combat the monotony of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, Francesca Baker, 33, started going on a walk every day. But that's as far as she'll push her workout routine — she knows what could happen if she takes it even one step further.

When she was 18, Baker developed an eating disorder that was accompanied by an obsession with exercising. "I started eating less and exercising more to 'get fit,'" she says. "It spiraled out of control."

When she started spending an inordinate amount of time indoors during the height of the pandemic, Baker says she noticed discussions about "pandemic weight gain" and an increase in health anxiety online. She admits that she became concerned that if she wasn't careful, she'd end up dangerously over-exercising again.

"I have an agreement with my boyfriend that I'm allowed X amount of activity a day, no more and no less," she says. "In lockdown, I definitely would have gotten into a spiral of exercise videos without those boundaries." (Related: 'The Biggest Loser' Trainer Erica Lugo On Why Eating Disorder Recovery Is a Lifelong Battle)

The COVID-19 Pandemic and "Exercise Addiction"

Baker isn't alone, and her experience could actually exemplify a wider problem of an urge to take workouts to the extreme. As a result of gym closures due to COVID-19, interest and investment in at-home workouts has surged. Fitness equipment revenue more than doubled from March to October 2020, totaling $2.3 billion, according to data from market research company NPD Group. Fitness app downloads increased by 47 percent in the second fiscal quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019, according to reporting from The Washington Post, and a recent survey of 1,000 remote workers found that 42 percent say they exercise more since they started working from home. Even as gyms reopen, many people are choosing to stick with at-home workouts for the foreseeable future.

While the convenience of at-home workouts for the masses is undeniable, mental health experts say the pandemic has created a "perfect storm" for those who are susceptible to over-exercising or even developing an exercise addiction.

"There's a real change in routine, which is very destabilizing for everybody," says Melissa Gerson, L.C.S.W., founder and clinical director of Columbus Park Center for Eating Disorders. "There's more physical and emotional isolation with the pandemic, too. We're social creatures and being isolated, we tend to naturally seek things to improve our wellbeing."

What's more, with the existing attachment to devices combined with their place as a form of connection to the world during the height of the lockdowns, people have been more vulnerable to marketing and promotion on social media, adds Gerson. The fitness industry often creates marketing messages that tap into people's vulnerabilities, and that hasn't changed since the onset of the pandemic, she says. (Related: How Much Exercise Is Too Much?)

A lack of structure can also make it easy for those with over-exercising tendencies and other disordered habits to fall into an exercise addiction, says Sarah Davis, L.M.H.C., L.P.C., C.E.D.S., a certified eating disorders specialist and licensed psychotherapist. When the pandemic first hit, a lot of people traded a nine to five in-office workday for a more flexible WFH lifestyle that made structure difficult to find.

How to Define an "Exercise Addiction"

The term "exercise addiction" is not currently considered a formal diagnosis, explains Gerson. There are a number of reasons why this might be, most notably that over-exercising or exercise addiction is a fairly new phenomenon that has only recently started to be recognized "in part because exercise is so socially acceptable that I think it's just taken a long time to be recognized as truly problematic." (Related: Orthorexia Is the Eating Disorder You've Never Heard Of)

Another factor is the association over-exercising has with disordered eating and other food-related disorders, she adds. "Right now, compensatory exercise is built into the diagnosis of certain kinds of eating disorders, like bulimia nervosa, to compensate for overeating," explains Gerson. "We may see it in anorexia, where the individual is very underweight and certainly not binge eating and not trying to make up for a binge, but they have this relentless drive to exercise."

Since there is no formal diagnosis, exercise addiction is often defined in the same way one would define an alcohol or substance abuse issue. "Those with exercise addiction are driven by a persistent compulsion to work out," explains Davis. "Missing a workout makes them feel irritable, anxious, or depressed and they may feel unable to resist doing it," much like a person in withdrawal from alcohol or drug use. If you push yourself to the point of injury and experience extreme anxiety and stress when you don't work out as much as you think you should, that's a sign you're overexercising, says Davis. (Related: Cassey Ho Opened Up About Losing Her Period from Over-Exercising and Under-Eating)

"Another main sign is when a person's exercise regimen begins to interfere with normal functioning," adds Davis. "Workouts begin to impact priorities and relationships."

Another giveaway that something isn't right? You don't find exercise enjoyable anymore, and it becomes more of something you "have to do" rather than "get to do," says Davis. "It's important to look at the thoughts and motivation behind the person's exercise," she says. "Are they basing their value and worth as a person on how much they are exercising and/or how 'fit' they feel others perceive them to be?"

Why an Exercise Obsession Can Go Undetected

Unlike with other mental health disorders that are ripe with stigma, society often uplifts those who work out, including those who work out obsessively, says Gerson. The social acceptance of constant fitness can make it difficult for anyone to even acknowledge they have a problem, and even more difficult to treat the problem once they've established one does, in fact, exist.

Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction

"Not only is exercise socially acceptable, but it's also considered admirable," explains Gerson. "There are so many positive judgments we make about people who exercise. 'Oh, they're so disciplined. Oh, they're so strong. Oh, they're so healthy.' We make all of these assumptions and it's just kind of fixed into our culture that we associate exercise and fitness with a whole bunch of really positive traits."

This certainly contributed to Sam Jefferson's disordered eating habits and workout addiction. Jefferson, 22, says the drive to "be the best" brought on a pattern of calorie restriction and avoidance of food, chewing and spitting out foods, laxative abuse, an obsession with eating clean, and, eventually, over-exercising.

"In my mind, if I can create a 'desirable' physical image of myself, achieved through over-exercising and eating small, low-calorie amounts, then I can essentially control how other people see and think of me," explains Jefferson.

How the Coronavirus Lockdown Can Affect Eating Disorder Recovery—and What You Can Do About It

The desire to be in control plays a large part in why people turn to exercise in response to trauma, says Davis. "Oftentimes, individuals engage in alternative coping mechanisms, such as over-exercising, in an attempt to numb the thoughts and pain associated with these experiences," she says, adding that a sense of control can be appealing, as well. "Because over-exercise is embraced by society, it oftentimes goes undetected as a trauma-response thereby further enabling the compulsion. (Related: Now Isn't the Time to Feel Guilty About Your Workout Routine)

Gerson says looking for natural ways to feel better — in this case, the rush of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that occurs during a workout that can give a person a feeling of euphoria — during times of trauma and stress is a common, and often a beneficial way to deal with outside stressors. "We look for ways to kind of self-medicate during difficult times," she explains. "We look for ways to naturally feel better." So fitness has a rightful place in your coping mechanism toolbox, but the problem arises when your fitness routine crosses into the territory of interfering with your normal functioning or causing anxiety.

What to Do if You Think You Have an Obsession with Exercise

Bottom line: If you think you have a problem, it's important to seek help from a trained professional who specializes in exercise addiction, says Davis. "Trained professionals, such as therapists, sports psychologists, and registered dietitians can help you identify the psychological underpinnings associated with excessive exercise and work toward listening to, honoring, and trusting your bodies in a way that leads to balance and learning to be intuitive about exercise," she says.

Trusted experts can help you find ways to cope with anxiety other than exercise, says Gerson. "Just creating a tool kit of other ways to self-soothe and bring positive experiences to things that don't involve exercise," says Gerson. (Related: The Potential Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 You Need to Know About)

Bear in mind that seeking help for over-exercising doesn't mean you're vain. "Oftentimes, people assume individuals struggle with exercise addiction simply because they want to appear a certain way," explains Davis. "However, the primary reason for exercising becomes a way to withdraw from certain life situations and the emotions that come up from them."

So much about this moment in global history remains beyond anyone's control, and even as states continue to ease COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates, feelings of social anxiety and the stress of contagious COVID-19 variants can make it that much harder for people to establish a healthier, more sustainable relationship with exercise. (Related: Why You Might Be Feeling Socially Anxious Coming Out of Quarantine)

It could take years, decades, even a lifetime to fully process the collective trauma caused by the COVID-19 crisis, making the problem of over-exercising one that is likely here to stay long after the world finds its new normal.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Helpline toll-free at (800)-931-2237, chat with someone at myneda.org/helpline-chat, or text NEDA to 741-741 for 24/7 crisis support.