Compulsive exercise and its relationship with mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in recreational exercisers and athletes

Cosh, S. M., McNeil, D. G. & Tully, P. J.

J. Sci. Med. Sport 26, 338–344 (2023).

Better understanding of compulsive exercise is needed in sports medicine. Whilst compulsive exercise may impact mental health, the limited research exploring the relationship between compulsive exercise and psychosocial outcomes is equivocal. The majority of studies have examined eating disorder populations where the eating disorder pathology might account for distress. This study explores relationships between compulsive exercise and mental health.


Cross-sectional observational study.


Australian recreational exercisers and athletes (N = 1157; Mage36.4, standard deviation = 12.9, 77 % female) recruited through sporting organisations, clubs, and gyms, completed measures of compulsive exercise, depression, anxiety, stress, life satisfaction, social physique anxiety, and self-esteem. Regression analyses examined relationships between dimensions of compulsive exercise and wellbeing.


After adjustment for eating disorder symptoms and sporting level, compulsive exercise was associated with increased risk of clinically-significant anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms. Compulsive exercise was also associated with lower life satisfaction and self-esteem, and higher social physique anxiety. Notably, different dimensions of compulsive exercise had varying relationships with outcomes, and avoidance and rule-driven behaviour and lack of exercise enjoyment were associated with poorer mental health and wellbeing.


Results suggest that compulsive exercise is uniquely associated with a range of psychosocial and mental health outcomes. Results support the need to improve identification and treatment of compulsive exercise in sport and exercise settings. Results highlight that mental health intervention is an important component of treatment, and treatments targeting symptoms related to avoidance and rule-driven behaviour, and anhedonia may be valuable treatment components for those with compulsive exercise.

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