In a world surrounded by various diet and exercise trends, many people develop an obsession with fitness. A healthy focus on nutrition and the condition of our bodies is important if we want to have long lives and functional movement into old age.
A fitness obsession disorder can develop for a number of reasons, including an unhealthy focus on perfection, being extremely self-critical, and being highly competitive.
Wanting to be healthy and fit isn’t a problem; it’s when the obsession with fitness begins to negatively affect relationships, work, and mental and physical health.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a fitness obsession, be compassionate, gentle, and understanding. Educate yourself on the best ways to help and avoid being judgemental.
In this article, we will explore whether we have become too obsessed with being fit and some of the risk factors for fitness obsession disorder.
When fitness becomes an obsession
Taking care of your health and wellness is a great habit. However, more than ever we are flooded with thousands of fitness influencers, trends, and memes for the latest get-fit-quick schemes and popular diets promising miraculous results. Unless you have regular access to a registered dietitian, it’s virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction.
With this onslaught of imagery of what society views as the ‘perfect’ body, it’s no wonder there are more and more people who are developing an obsession with being fit. There is a rise in the number of people suffering from orthorexia a fixation with only eating healthy or ‘pure’ foods. We are seeing more young people being diagnosed and treated for disordered eating habits in the endless quest to attain the current fashionable body shape.
The lure of #fitspo
A quick search of the hashtag #fitspo on Instagram will bring up over 50 million images of shredded abs, toned tummies, and trendy workout gear. Not only that but the infamous ‘how it started vs. how it’s going’ transformational videos of people’s miraculous weight loss journeys are everywhere. These images are often accompanied by course offers that promise incredible results in short periods of time, often developed by individuals with no real qualifications in the health and wellness sphere.
The psychological intoxication of watching other people's transformations can become addictive. In addition, this addiction often turns into money spent on courses, gym memberships, sports equipment, and the latest workout fashions.
The fitness industry is now a financial behemoth; at its recent peak in 2019, it was worth a staggering $96.1 billion. There’s a lot of money to be made by creating a population full to the brim of fitness-obsessed market-ready consumers.
What causes exercise and fitness obsession?
Let’s be clear; it is perfectly possible to have a healthy passion for exercise and enjoy moving and sculpting your body. When it becomes obsessive, we start seeing problems. This fixation on fitness can develop for a number of reasons, including:
- An obsession with ‘perfection’
- A strong desire to always win
- Using exercise as a distraction from other issues in life
- Excessive comparison with the perceived ‘ideal’ body
People can also be addicted to feeling the physiological changes brought on by exercise. Endorphins, often dubbed ‘happy hormones’, are released through exercise, and they feel good, potentially leading people to chase those sensations through ever more challenging workouts and fitness regimes.
Is there any danger in becoming fitness-obsessed?
There is a very real danger in becoming fitness-obsessed, fanatical about exercise, and overly preoccupied with eating habits.
"Sometimes I’d even do two sessions a day. I’d skip other activities to work out because if I had to miss a session, I’d feel depressed and worried it would derail my progress."Lisa Andrews
In the case of young British mother Lisa Andrews, her fitness obsession landed her in two orthopedic boots due to stress fractures in her feet from overexercising. Her story, as told by Guardian journalist Nicole Mowbray, is a sobering reflection on how easy it is to become swallowed by the obsession for the perfect body.
We need to be vigilant about following fitness regimes that:
- Are too advanced for our current levels of fitness
- Are designed by unqualified fitness influencers
- Promise radical results in short spaces of time
- Have a one-size-fits-all approach
- Encourage excessive high-intensity workouts
- Promote working out through the pain in order to gain
A healthy exercise program will always prioritize your feelings of health and wellness rather than pushing or overly exerting yourself before you are ready.
How to tell if you are becoming fixated on fitness
If you are on a fitness journey and notice any of the behaviors in the following list, you may be on the road to developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise:
- Obsessively measuring yourself to monitor weight loss.
- Standing on the scales multiples times a week and feeling anxious about weight fluctuations.
- Thinking about exercising a lot of the time.
- Lost friendships and other relationships due to always wanting to exercise or obsessively talking about fitness.
- Frequently getting fitness-related injuries.
- Going to the gym or having to do a hardcore workout every day or more than once a day.
- Feeling guilty if you miss a workout.
- Using working out to regulate your emotional state rather than facing what you are feeling.
- Becoming overly critical of yourself and competitive.
What to do if you think you or a loved one has an unhealthy relationship with fitness
Knowing what to do if you suspect you or a loved one have an obsession with fitness can make all the difference. Take a look through our list of do’s and don’ts for some suggestions.
Final thoughts on fitness fanaticism
While it’s great that people are being encouraged to be more active, it’s vitally important to seek out fitness instructors who are fully qualified rather than trendy #fitspo influencers. If you want to begin a fitness journey, try joining a gym with professional personal trainers who can help tailor your workouts to feel challenging but not damaging.
A healthy relationship to fitness is underpinned by a mindset that supports long-term, sustainable improvements, not quick-fix fitness tricks. Getting into great physical shape isn’t a sprint race, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon either. Think of it as a journey, full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and plenty of variety—much like life itself.
What is it called when you are obsessed with working out?
The term ‘fitness obsession disorder’ is often used to describe people who have an unhealthy relationship to exercise and diet. It’s not an official term but has been coined in the health and fitness world and is used loosely when referring to those who are obsessed with fitness.
- Translational Sports Medicine. Exercise addiction, obsessive passion, and the use of nutritional supplements in fitness center attendees.
- Substance Use and Misuse. Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology.
- Environmental Research and Public Health. Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occuring disorders, and phases of addiction.
- Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Worldwide prevalence on DSM-5 eating disorders among young people.