Exercise Noise: How To Stop Obsessive Workout Thoughts

Figuring out when to fit in a workout between your job, family, friends, chores, or whatever other things you have going on in your life undoubtedly takes some planning and mental heavy lifting. Those runs, spin classes, or strength training sessions don’t just happen without a little forethought!

But have you ever stopped to wonder how much time you spend thinking about exercise—and if those thoughts could be having a negative affect on your wellbeing?

With the advent of GLP-1 receptor agonist medications (like Ozempic), a new term, “food noise,”1 has emerged. Food noise refers to frequent or even constant and intrusive thoughts about food, including ruminating on what you’ve eaten and planning what and when you’ll eat next. The drugs supposedly “quiet” the food noise, which some describe as a godsend from an obsessive thought pattern that persists whether or not a person is hungry.

However, some believe food noise comes about from food restriction, and that “quieting food noise” is just the more culturally acceptable, diet industry-sanitized way of describing appetite suppression.

Either way, the popularization of the term “food noise” has brought attention to the din of obsessive thoughts that can accompany a person’s pursuit of health (and often, thinness). So, might some people experience a similar thought pattern for fitness?

If you have running thoughts in your head about how much you’ve exercised, what your next workout will be, whether that workout was really “enough” exertion, or other brain space-taking thoughts about fitness, it could actually be “exercise noise.”

“The concept of ‘exercise noise’ is a plausible idea, paralleling the concept of ‘food noise,’ says Mia Beck Lichtenstein, PhD, a professor and psychologist at the University of Southern Denmark, who specializes in health psychology and has studied eating disorders and compulsive exercise. “While ‘food noise’ refers to the constant mental chatter or obsession about food, diet, and eating, ‘exercise noise’ would encompass the continuous thoughts, worries, and pressures surrounding physical activity, exercise routines and bodily appearance.”

Lisa Folden, DPT, a physical therapist, anti-diet health and body image coach, and founder of Healthy Phit Physical Therapy & Wellness Consultants, sees food and exercise noise as two sides of the same coin—one that’s been minted by fatphobia and the diet industry.

“We’ve been taught to believe that the way to manage and control the way our bodies look and the size of them is to control significantly what goes into our bodies and control how much energy we expel to burn calories or fat,” Dr. Folden says. That need for control is what leads to ruminating on the input (food) and the output (exercise). “So absolutely, I think the exercise voice is the cousin to the food voice.”

So, what exactly is exercise noise?

Spending mental energy figuring out when you’re going to exercise and what kind of exercise you’re going to do is probably necessary and normal if exercising is a priority to you. It’s even a part of an intuitive movement practice, which is about tuning into the needs of your body to move in a way that makes you feel good.

However, thinking about exercise could cross over into exercise noise when the thoughts become obsessive, intrusive, punitive, critical, and a source of stress.

“Exercise noise is ineffective, not fruitful, not purposeful, not helpful,” Dr. Folden says. “But when we have an inner dialogue with ourselves, we talk to ourselves and we’re trying to plan how we’re going to move or when we’re being kind and affirming ourselves, that’s very different and that’s very helpful. So I think it’s about the distinction between what exercise noise is and how negative it is and how agonizing and anxiety-driving it is versus an inner dialogue that is peaceful and about harmony and about grace and about kindness and about love and about health enhancing, versus critical and punishing and something that’s created to tear you down.”

Exercise noise and compulsive exercise might have some overlap, and could even be a risk factor for exercise addiction, Dr. Lichtenstein says. She identifies 12 ways exercise noise might manifest.

  1. Constantly thinking about your next workout
  2. Obsessing over exercise schedules and fitting in exercise sessions
  3. Feeling guilty about missing a workout
  4. Anxiety over not meeting fitness goals or comparing oneself to others
  5. Being overwhelmed by fitness influencers and the pressure to adhere to popular exercise trends
  6. Comparing personal progress with others’ curated, often idealized, fitness journeys
  7. Worrying excessively about body image and fitness levels
  8. Stress about achieving a particular physique or performance benchmark
  9. Compulsion to exercise excessively, even when it leads to injury, pain, stress or burnout
  10. Prioritizing exercise over other important aspects of life, like socializing, resting, or work
  11. Feeling pressured by friends, family, or society to maintain a certain level of physical activity
  12. Constantly seeking validation through exercise achievements

Some of these criteria might seem subjective, and Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, says they probably are. In her own eating disorder recovery, she says the amount she was exercising might have looked healthy from the outside, but the intensity she required of herself, and the worry she had around whether she was exercising enough, probably crossed over into a disordered thought pattern of exercise noise.

“I don’t think you can say that [exercise noise is] a very specific number because I think it’s going to look different for different people,” Rosenbluth says. “It really also depends on the intensity and the anxiety [people] feel around it, too.”

Digging into the anxiety around exercise, and reasons for that stress and obsession, can help you identify if exercise thoughts are really unproductive and harmful exercise noise—and a symptom of a larger anxiety around your health and body.

“We’ve been taught to believe that the way to manage and control the way our bodies look and the size of them is to control significantly what goes into our bodies and control how much energy we expel to burn calories or fat.” —Lisa Folden, DPT

When thoughts turn to “noise”

Figuring out whether you’re experiencing exercise noise might be able to help you ultimately form a better relationship with exercise, and your body image overall. But to understand why, we have to think a bit more about food noise.

Thinking about food is a very normal part of the human experience, and is in fact one of the ways your body sends a signal that you’re hungry, Rosenbluth says. If the thoughts are obsessive and intrusive, calling those thoughts “food noise” could help you identify and investigate that source of distress. However, it could also pathologize an experience as something you can—surprise, surprise!—treat with a pill, when really, experts say the cause of the noise is likely a disordered relationship with food and body image in the first place.

“[My clients] describe being very obsessed with food, thinking about it constantly, even going so far as watching people eating on YouTube and reading menus for fun,” Rosenbluth says. “They’re really, really obsessed and thinking about food all the time. And what I see time and time again is that when they’re more nourished, when they’re genuinely eating all foods, when they’re just genuinely letting themselves eat, the food noise disappears.”

When the term food noise is used to describe something you want to eliminate on the path to thinness, it becomes more coded diet industry speak. But if we can understand food noise as something that’s symptomatic of the diet industry itself, identifying thoughts as “noise” can actually help us tune into our body’s needs and the harmful societal pressures that could be shaping our self-talk. The same thing goes for exercise noise.

“The concepts of ‘food noise’ and ‘exercise noise’ can indeed be seen as two sides of the same coin, especially when preoccupation with weight, appearance, or an exercise addiction or eating disorder drives these noises,” Dr. Lichtenstein says. “Food noise as well as exercise noise can have significant impacts on mental health, contributing to anxiety, stress, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Often, the roots are similar, including societal pressures, body image issues, and personal insecurities.”

How to turn down the volume on exercise noise

Addressing the root cause of exercise noise, which could be general fatphobic societal beauty standards, might be easier said than done. But cultivating an inner dialogue about exercise that serves you is ultimately worth the effort.

“I look at noise as ineffective without purpose,” Dr. Folden says. “But when you think of things that make sense and that impact you, that’s like music.”

If you’re struggling with exercise noise, food noise, or your relationship with your body, you may want to speak with a mental health professional.

“Just as with food noise, the goal would be to cultivate a mindful, positive, and sustainable attitude toward exercise, focusing on enjoyment, health, and well-being rather than compulsion, anxiety and body perfection,” Dr. Lichtenstein says.

In the meantime, here are some strategies to turn exercise noise into movement music.

1. Eat. Yes, really!

Because food noise and exercise noise are related, Rosenbluth says food noise might actually be feeding into exercise noise.

“A lot of times, the obsessive exercise is really tied into being malnourished,” Rosenbluth says. “When the person is more nourished, not for everyone obviously, but for a lot of people, some of that really obsessive inability to sit or constantly exercising, thinking about exercise, or feeling like you have to, all of that kind of alleviates and gets quieter when the person’s more nourished, too.”

2. Strive for exercise balance

We’re not conditioned to think about our relationship with exercise critically because exercise is considered virtuous. But if you find that exercise itself is causing harm, changing your routine could help with exercise noise, too.

“A healthy exercise balance may be difficult to find because we’ve learned that exercise is healthy—and more exercise is even healthier,” Dr. Lichtenstein says. “Exercise addiction is not defined by the amount of weekly exercise, and the optimal exercise behavior is individual. Exercise becomes a problem when the negative consequences are bigger than the positive health outcomes. A person may enjoy daily exercise routines, but if they lead to overuse injuries, social isolation, and obsessive thoughts about exercise, this person may need some changes.”

“Just as with food noise, the goal would be to cultivate a mindful, positive, and sustainable attitude toward exercise, focusing on enjoyment, health, and well-being rather than compulsion, anxiety and body perfection.” Mia Beck Lichtenstein, PhD

3. Ask yourself who’s talking when the voice of exercise noise speaks

Is the voice telling you to exercise punishing, harsh, or critical? Is it the way you would speak to a friend? If it’s not, that’s not a voice you have to listen to.

“It’s an inner critic versus an inner kind, loving person,” Dr. Folden says. “When that voice starts to be mean and judgmental and aggressive and icky, then we’ve pushed too far and we need to pull back and get to that space of love and compassion and kindness.”

4. Let the thoughts come—and then let them go

As in mindfulness, we want to control our reaction to our thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. So when you experience exercise noise, have a dialogue with yourself.

Acknowledge the thought and then reject it—sometimes it’s out loud and sometimes it’s not, according to Dr. Folden.

“You can say, ‘I no longer subscribe to the idea that I have to sweat in order to have a good workout. So, no thank you for that thought.’ You may go a step further and say, ‘I believe that all movement matters, and even a brisk walk, where I barely sweat or it’s only five minutes, is still good for my body.’ And so sometimes it’s actively stopping and verbalizing these things out loud because what we think, what we say, what we see, what we repeat becomes sort of the diagram of who we are and what we actually believe and what we lean into.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Hayashi D, Edwards C, Emond JA, Gilbert-Diamond D, Butt M, Rigby A, Masterson TD. What Is Food Noise? A Conceptual Model of Food Cue Reactivity. Nutrients. 2023 Nov 17;15(22):4809. doi: 10.3390/nu15224809. PMID: 38004203; PMCID: PMC10674813.


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