I’m addicted to working out but am scared to cut back. How do I stop over-exercising?

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A tired woman on a treadmill.
Doing too much exercise isn’t good for you. Getty
  • Admitting you’re over-exercising is the first step in creating a healthier balance.
  • Ask yourself what you’re scared of, and reframe those thoughts.
  • Fitness should be a part of your life, not your whole life.
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Dear Rachel,

How do I address my addiction to exercise? I started exercising because I enjoyed feeling fit and it helped me to manage a healthy weight but now I feel that I’ve become addicted to it. My favorite exercise is anything cardio so I do HIIT workouts, go for runs, do Zumba classes and go swimming but now if I don’t exercise one day, I feel sluggish and lethargic all day. My absolute worst nightmare has just happened as I have just injured my knee and so I know I need to take an extended break from exercise which I am dreading. I also think that my knee injury could have been avoided, if I had taken more rest days. I would love to know how to break out of this cycle.

– Exercise Obsessed

Dear Obsessed,

Sorry to hear you’ve injured your knee, but maybe this is your body’s way of telling you to slow down.

As a fellow fitness fan, I know how frustrating injuries are. But they can also provide a great opportunity to pause and take stock.

We live in a culture that tells us more is more. “You only regret the workout you didn’t do,” people say. But this isn’t true.

Not only does time off often help you reach your goals (be they performance or aesthetic), but I’m always surprised by how little impact it actually has – you don’t suddenly undo all your progress.

It sounds like you have some mental unpacking to do so you can create a healthier relationship with movement – it should be a celebration of your body, not punishment.

Change your thoughts

Exercise addiction is defined by a need to increase intensity or volume to experience the “buzz,” an inability to reduce training, and where an absence results in anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or sleep disturbances, sports dietitian and orthorexia specialist Renee McGregor told Insider.

These feelings make it hard to change, but McGregor said the first step is to ask yourself what you’re afraid of.

“Remember all behavior has a purpose, usually protection, and comes from a place of good intent, even if the actual behavior is not helpful or appropriate,” she said.

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What do you think is going to happen if you don’t train?

“When you can start to understand what the purpose of your exercise addiction is, you can ask yourself the questions: Are my fears and thoughts around this logical, rational, or helpful?” she said.

The next step is to create alternative thoughts – for example, if you’re scared you’ll lose fitness if you don’t workout every day, replace that with the reminder that rest days will allow you to get more out of each session.

“By having an alternative thought, you change the feelings associated, reduce anxiety and fear, and start the process of changing your behavior,” McGregor said.

More is not always better

By admitting you’re doing too much, you’ve taken the first step. It can be daunting and scary to change your lifestyle, but both your mental and physical health will likely improve when you do, personal trainer Hayley Madigan told Insider.

“When we overexercise we often do it for the wrong reasons, believing we ‘need to sweat every day to burn calories’ or we ‘need train cardio to lose weight,’ when actually our bodies will benefit more from a mixture of exercise regimes,” she said.

Madigan recommends resistance training to protect your bones and ligaments, and strengthen your muscles.

“Remember that adding in adequate rest days during the week will allow our muscles to rebuild and repair stronger, but will also give our minds the time out of exercise needed to focus on different aspects of life,” she said.

Recovering adequately is vital for injury prevention, and you need to be careful your knee injury doesn’t flare up again.

There’s more to life than fitness

I love going to the gym, keeping active is important, and fitness is a big part of my life – but it’s not my whole life. In an ideal world, I’d stick to my training plan consistently every week, but life doesn’t always allow that. And that’s how it should be.

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“When it comes to exercise addiction we often put exercising and working out before anything and anyone, even spending time with loved ones and making important memories,” Madigan said. “However, when you start to put self-care, mental health, and your social life first, you’ll begin to realize how important other aspects of your life are.”

If you struggle on your own, reach out for professional support from a therapist, doctor, or specialist.

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

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