Falling Into a Fitness Obsession in Eating Disorder Recovery

Recently, I’ve seen a few popular articles making the rounds online featuring individuals proclaiming how they recovered from their eating disorder and now embrace “the fitness lifestyle.” These articles typically tout sayings such as, “strong not skinny” and feature social media accounts containing ab pictures, protein powder creations, and “fitspiration.”

In order to explain the problematic nature of embracing “the fitness lifestyle” in recovery, it is helpful to look at what it means to be recovered. It is important to note that just as no two people’s experience of an eating disorder is the same, recovery can look different for everyone. However, it is generally accepted that recovery from an eating disorder is when food and body take a more normal place in someone’s life. Additionally, this is when people are able to accept their natural set-point weight and body shape, and can eat a wide variety of foods. In full recovery, individuals are able to pursue their passions, strengthen their relationships, and engage in hobbies and activities that have nothing to do with food and their body.

Fixated on “Fitness”

Some people in recovery from an eating disorder may unintentionally fall into another, more socially-acceptable, obsession with fitness and exercise. When I see social media accounts that are filled with “body progress pictures,” strange concoctions of protein powder, and endless posts about “working out,” it becomes fairly evident that this person may have replaced one dangerous obsession, with another.

When someone is obsessed with the size of their muscles, counting the “macros” in their food, and blowing off friends to spend time at the gym-they are likely still struggling with their eating disorder and/or with compulsive exercise. They are not able to be fully free and present in their lives, as they are still consumed with an unhealthy obsession. However, unfortunately a fixation on “fitness” is often praised in our culture and many may not recognize that their friend or loved one is struggling.

Warning Signs of Excessive Exercise

Despite what popular fitness memes may suggest, there is definitely such thing as “too much” exercise. Additionally, when exercise becomes excessive and compulsive, it can become both physically and mentally unhealthy. People who are in recovery from eating disorders are especially vulnerable to developing a problem with compulsive and excessive exercise.

The following are some of the warning signs of excessive exercise:

  • Continuing to exercise despite injury, illness, and fatigue.
  • Inability to take rest days or feeling intense guilt/anxiety about taking a day off from exercise.
  • Having an inflexible or rigid exercise routine.
  • Skipping social events and other commitments in order to exercise.
  • Restricting food if they are unable to exercise.
  • Being overly concerned with the appearance of one’s body.
  • Exercise beginning to take priority over everything else in their life.

Other Considerations

It’s also important to look at one’s level of flexibility surrounding food and any lingering “food rules.” For instance, avoiding certain foods because you deem them to be “unhealthy,” is not a recovery mindset. The aim of recovery is to be able to enjoy a wide variety of food and not to subscribe to one specific “way of eating.” All foods can fit into a healthy diet and you deserve to nourish yourself with food that you enjoy.

Full recovery is laughing with family over pancakes, traveling the world while savoring the food and sights of different cultures, and enjoying dessert at a friend’s party. It is not consuming only “protein pancakes,” counting macros, or “clean eating.” Having “food rules,” obsessions, and restrictions, only serves to fuel a disordered mindset and an unhealthy relationship with food.

Full Recovery is Possible

If any of the warning signs resonate with you, it’s so important that you seek help from professionals. If you are already meeting with a treatment team, it is critical to be honest with them about your concerns.

It’s also important to practice self-compassion. You are certainly not alone in struggling with an obsession with “the fitness lifestyle,” while on the road to recovery. In a culture that praises exercise and “black and white” thinking surrounding food, unfortunately these kinds of behaviors are normalized. Additionally, individuals in recovery from eating disorders may be particularly vulnerable to developing an obsession with “fitness.”

Ultimately, full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. You can live a life free from obsessing about food, your body, and the gym. If your interest in “fitness” is taking over your life, it’s important to reach out for help and support. Seeking help when you are struggling is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Staying trapped in “the fitness lifestyle” will keep you from reaching full recovery. It will enable you to stay stuck in unhealthy coping mechanisms, which only make you feel worse in the long-term. Your life is worth so much more than obsessing about exercise, your body, and food. You deserve a full life, one where you can finally say, “I am recovered.”


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Additional Reading:

Intuitive Movement
Intuitive Eating

About the Author:

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with survivors of trauma, adolescents, body-image issues, eating disorders, and mood disorders. She is a blogger on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She is a junior board member for The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). You can visit her website and connect with Jennifer at www.jenniferrollin.com


Gooding, A. (2013). More, more, more: The dangers of excessive exercise. Retrieved from: http://eatingdisorder.org/blog/2013/07/more-more-more-the-dangers-of-excessive-exercise/

Thompson, C. (2014). Set point theory.

Written – 2016