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Addicted to Exercise

When working out shifts from a healthy habit to obsession

Do you think it would be great to love exercising so much you couldn’t quit? Does the image of a svelte waistline, slender hips and shapely legs bring a smile to your face?

Think again. That image of beauty may be an unrealistic, media-provoked goal. And believe it or not, you really can get too much of a good thing.

For some people, exercise becomes an obsession, especially when combined with a distorted body image (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) or a fixation on a particular body part.

Why the obsession?

Robert P. Sprafkin, PhD, senior psychologist at Syracuse VA Medical Center, says, “With society’s values, which emphasize thinness and perfectionist fitness, one finds plenty of encouragement and justification for going to whatever extremes necessary to achieve these goals. We don’t find these patterns of behavior in cultures that have different ideals of beauty.”

Societal beauty ideals have a greater impact on women than on men and begin to affect women at an earlier age. Recent studies on body perception published in the journal Perception and Motor Skills showed that by eighth grade, 69 percent of girls surveyed said they thought they should be thinner, as opposed to only 25 percent of the boys.

As women age, these negative perceptions persist. A subsequent study that looked at 20-year-old men and women found that women not only expressed thinner ideal weights but also perceived themselves as heavier than their actual weight. Men, on the other hand, loosened up in their expectations and judged themselves lighter.

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Based on these findings, psychologists speculate that most women diet and exercise because they’re dissatisfied with their body, while men appear to work out for different reasons.

“I exercise every day. I work out hard, no matter if it hurts—which it usually does—no matter how I feel”

Addicted to Exercise

Marina Benjamen, Ph.D.

Marina Benjamen, Ph.D. is an award-winning journalist and writer, with wide-ranging interests across the arts and sciences. After serving as Arts Editor of the New Statesman, Deputy Arts Editor at the Evening Standard, she wrote op-ed columns for the Daily Express and Scotland on Sunday. In 2012, she joined the team that launched the online magazine Aeon, where she now works as a senior editor.

APA Reference
Benjamen, M. (2020). Addicted to Exercise. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.