Autism and Exercise Addiction

autism recovery
Autism and Exercise Addiction

As with most concepts when considered through an autistic lens, the connection between autism and exercise is a complex one. Many autistic people struggle with movement due to lack of coordination and discomfort in social settings such as at the gym or within sports teams. On the other hand, body movement may be an outlet for autistic people, which can lead to obsession and dependence. There are several factors that may contribute to exercise addiction in autistic individuals. In this post, I share five factors that impacted my own unhealthy relationship with exercise.


Many autistic individuals also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which can lead to restlessness and a constant need to move. As a child, I was always very active and energetic, so playing 3+ different sports was an energy outlet for me. As I got older, I had a really hard time letting go of my “athlete identity” and therefore continued exercising several hours a day, even when I was no longer part of any official teams or clubs.

Literal thinking

Autistic people tend to take information very literally. When I started learning about health and nutrition in fifth grade (when I was eleven) we were taught that a “healthy lifestyle” includes eating certain foods and exercising for a certain amount of time each day. I took such health “recommendations” very literally and believed that I would have an unhealthy heart and die earlier if I did not exercise for X amount of minutes each day.

Special interest

In a previous post, I shared how my eating disorder was an autistic special interest. If you consider your special interests as a metaphorical tree, the eating disorder may be the trunk and exercise can be considered as one of the branches. Similar to how I became obsessed with learning everything I could about food and nutrition, I became equally obsessed with learning about sports.


This factor is somewhat related to the factor about hyperactivity and ADHD, but may also occur in autistic individuals without co-occurring ADHD traits. Namely, autistic people tend to have non-typical levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior. Exercise increases these neurotransmitters, which is why exercise addiction may be perceived as an adaptation to achieve higher neurological levels.


Both literally and figuratively! One of the reasons autistic people may have traumatic experiences surrounding exercise is due to being bullied when younger (being picked last in gym class, not being able to catch a ball, etc). Exercise that can be done independently (running, swimming, lifting weights, etc) may then be a way for the individual to “prove” their athletic capabilities. Alternatively, the goal of the exercise may be to lose weight and/or influence body shape, which can be considered a compensatory behavior to negate consumed calories.

If you want to gain a healthy relationship with movement and learn to enjoy exercise, schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching here!

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