Obligatory exercise and coping in treatment-seeking women with poor body image



Obligatory exercise is characterized by continued exercise despite negative consequences, and intense negative affect when unable to exercise. Research suggests psychosocial differences between individuals that exercise in an obligatory manner and those that do not. It also has been speculated that obligatory exercise may serve coping and affect regulation functions, yet these factors have not been routinely examined in community women with poor body image. The purpose of the current study was to investigate psychosocial differences between obligatory and non-obligatory exercisers, and to examine the use of obligatory exercise as an avoidant coping strategy in a sample of women with poor body image.


Women (n = 70) seeking treatment for body dissatisfaction were divided into obligatory and non-obligatory exercise groups based on their scores on the Obligatory Exercise Questionnaire. Participants then completed an assessment battery about eating pathology, body image, reasons for exercise, coping strategies, and negative affect.


Independent t test analyses indicated that obligatory exercisers had significantly greater eating disorder symptomatology, avoidant coping, and appearance- and mood-related reasons for exercise than non-obligatory exercisers. Multiple regression analyses revealed that eating disorder symptomatology and avoidant coping were significant predictors of obligatory exercise.


There are distinct psychosocial differences between women with poor body image who exercise in an obligatory fashion and those who do not. The current study suggests that obligatory exercise may serve as an avoidant coping strategy for women with poor body image. Enhancing healthy coping strategies may be an important addition to body image improvement programs.

Level of evidence

V, cross-sectional descriptive study.

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Correspondence to Jane Ellen Smith.

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All procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.

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Serier, K.N., Smith, J.E., Lash, D.N. et al. Obligatory exercise and coping in treatment-seeking women with poor body image. Eat Weight Disord 23, 331–338 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-018-0504-3

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  • Obligatory exercise
  • Coping
  • Body image
  • Negative affect