NEWS

Did You Work Out Too Much During the Pandemic?

exercise addiction illo

Theresa Chiechi

This story is part of a series that explores growing health trends that were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these trends stay or go away in the post-pandemic era?

Key Takeaways

  • Popular pandemic exercise trends, like ab challenges, may have led to an increase in anxiety levels surrounding physical health and fitness.
  • Exercise addiction could be an extreme response to self-isolation and global shutdowns.
  • While social media sometimes perpetuates unrealistic fitness expectations, influencers may also help steer the conversation to redefine what exercising means.

As gyms and fitness centers faced global shutdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to stay home, people took advantage of their flexible schedules to establish exercise regimens or improve existing fitness habits. 

The growing at-home fitness trends were reflected by sizable spikes in personal gym equipment sales and fitness app downloads. Peloton, the exercise equipment company known for its at-home bike, live and on-demand video classes and mobile app, reached 3.1 million global subscribers in 2020.

Online fitness videos also went viral as people strived to shed body fat during the lockdowns. Fitness influencer Chloe Ting saw a massive surge of viewers for her two-week ab challenges on YouTube. Her “Get Abs in 2 WEEKS” workout video has amassed over 401 million views so far. 

Social media became a popular place for users to document their fitness journeys, dramatic weight losses, and transformations from spare tire to six-pack abs. But these platforms may have also harbored anxiety over exercising, leading to some form of “exercise addiction” for some people.

Jen Lauren, 24, tried a few of these promising ab challenges and saw how young women could develop an unhealthy relationship with exercise from unrealistic expectations.

“Every single person has a different body, everyone’s eating different things. It’s not realistic and I think it could also be really discouraging for someone to do these challenges and not get the results that they’re seeing [online],” she tells Verywell.

Psychologists have pointed out the hallmarks of exercise addiction include reducing social or recreational activities to compensate for workout time, ignoring injuries or fatigue, and feeling irritable or anxious in the absence of exercise. Overall, only 8.7% of gym users meet the criteria for exercise addiction, but it is more prevalent among people who struggle with eating disorders.

Assessment Criteria for Exercise Addiction

In a 2011 study, psychologists identified exercise addiction based on the following criteria: increasing tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, lack of self-control, inability to stick to one’s intended routine, excessive time spent in exercise, reduction in other regular activities, and continuance despite creating physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems.

Lauren eventually strayed away from videos that promised abs or weight loss in a certain number of days. She turned her attention to Sydney Cummings, a personal trainer who also shares workout videos on YouTube.

With over 1.2 million subscribers and a loyal fan base that calls itself the “Sydney Squad,” Cummings says she understands how the fitness industry can perpetuate harmful thoughts around physical health.

It was only a few years ago that she began to remove her YouTube video titles that mentioned phrases like “calorie burn” after seeing followers exclusively click on the workouts that would burn the highest amount of calories.

“It’s a responsibility of the fitness industry to think about the amount of eyes that see those titles and the ages of the people who see them, and how that sinks in,” Cummings tells Verywell. “They’re given this false representation of a very short period of time and very drastic results, and that we should only aim for aesthetic changes.”

In a 2020 study, researchers said an obsession with more exercise “may result in loss of control.” While the study found a 49% decrease in exercise related to the pandemic, around 15% the participants were classified as at risk of exercise addiction.

Pandemic Fitness Trends Are Largely Positive

For a majority of people who have started exercising more since last year, it’s still a net positive, says Paul Ronto, chief marketing officer of RunRepeat, the largest athletic footwear review company on the Internet. 

In March, RunRepeat ran a study that found an 88% increase in exercise rates among 12,913 participants. Rather than a heightened intensity from avid exercisers, the largest increase came from average athletes or those who normally only exercised once or twice a week. Avid athletes, classified as those that work out four or more times a week, decreased their exercise frequency by 14% on average.

Ronto says the pandemic fitness trends have welcomed more members to the fitness community.

“An overabundance of exercise frequency isn’t that big of a concern,” he tells Verywell. “What happened is that people got an unhealthy dose of only doing one to two types of exercises—doing the same thing over and over with little to no cross-training.”

For people who do experience health anxiety and exercise addiction, many say the message of moderation cannot be emphasized enough.

Cummings sees potential in the power of social media, despite its drawbacks, to promote healthy fitness habits and build supportive communities. She believes that part of combating health anxiety lies in reframing exercise as a means to feel stronger and more energized, rather than to achieve some kind of physical result.

“I think people are starting to understand that healthy doesn’t look a certain way,” she says. “It’s a representation of how you’re functioning inside and thinking about yourself.”

What This Means For You

Exercise in moderation is productive and conducive to wellness, experts say. Consider your motivation behind exercise and whether your current fitness goals are affecting your mental health negatively.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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