Exercise and me. (aka my story + some thoughts on helping you get out of an exercise compulsion)
I’m not able to 100% articulate exactly how I got out of my exercise compulsion. That’s why I’ve taken so long to write this post. I like giving you information in recipe format. That meaning I give you the ingredients and the steps you need to take to get to a desired outcome. But with journeying out of an exercise compulsion, it has been such a slow, gradual process that there aren’t specific ingredients and steps I can wrap up and present to you in a pretty box with the tools and steps you need to have a healthful relationship with movement.
But being here on vacation and having no compulsion to want to exercise has made me want to finally write this post. Maybe something I say will help you if you are struggling even if I’m not 100% clear how I got to the place I am now. I always say I’m not sure the day my eating disorder + exercise compulsion started and I’m not sure the day it stopped. But I do know that I’m so freaking happy I’m not exercising my life away anymore.
Originally, I was supposed to write this post for ClassPass. But I felt like I was forcing it. Forcing my emotions to quickly. So I stepped away from that opportunity and gave myself more time to process what I wanted to say. And here we are.
Let’s get into it.
Having a habit to exercise and move your body isn’t bad. It can actually be healthful. But when a habit turns into an obligation, that’s a signal that you need to start making changes. That point when a healthful habit becomes an obligation is the point when that healthful habit is no longer healthful. EVERYONE says exercise is healthy. But I’m here to tell you there is a point when exercise is NOT healthy. It becomes a miserable, giant soul suck.
Many think bulimia involves purging your food through vomiting, but it can also involved purging your food through excessive exercise (the latter was the case for me.). I spent a decade struggling before I got help and I’m writing this post so hopefully you don’t have to spend that long struggling.
According to the DSM (aka a long list of conditions a doctor can diagnose you with): an exercise obsession is movement that, “significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or when the individual continues to exercise despite injury or other medical complications.”
When I was in an exercise compulsion, my brain felt like…
It is so common in our society for us to feel extreme pressure to control the size of our bodies through calorie counting, exercise obsession and dieting. All of which are factors that can lead to you finding yourself smack-dab in the middle of an eating disorder.
How to know if you have an exercise compulsion? You can start by answering these questions:
- Does a workout not “count” unless it is a certain number of minutes/miles?
- Does a workout not “count” unless you sweat?
- When you move your body, do you focus primarily on calories burned?
- Do you feel guilty if you miss a designated exercise day?
If you answered yes to any of those questions. It’s probably time to start asking yourself this questions…
One of the first steps in stopping my exercise compulsion was stopping the current exercise behavior I was engaging in. A good reminder is that your behaviors will change before your thoughts will (i.e. I still wanted to exercise even when I was choosing to engaging in the practice of NO exercise.) I had to put a barrier in place to force myself to stop exercising. I had to create an environment where it was easier to NOT exercise.
For me this meant throwing away my tennis shoes (yes, $100+ Brooks) + cancelling my gym memberships + getting rid of anything keeping me in a rigid exercise routine. I do believe in God and I believe a boundary he created for me was intense back pain and nerve pain that kept me from running. After a run it felt like my legs were covered in ants. Tingling and burning to the point of tears. I ran with that pain for a long time. That wasn’t healthy. That was me wanting thinness over health. That is a place I won’t ever go back to.
I know now there are things I have to give up to have my life back. I had to give up long distance running and thinness goals. I had to learn how to #1 tolerate my body’s natural size and then progress to #2 accepting my body’s natural size and then progress to #3 loving my body’s natural size. I teeter between #2 and #3 now. There are weeks and months and seasons I go through with overwhelming body love. And then out of the blue I’ll go through weeks where I’m in a place where I can accept my size, but can’t love it.
Specific ideas I have for you to get out of an exercise obsession:
1) Get rid of things that keep you in your rigid exercise routine.
- specific suggestions: throw away your tennis shoes. yup. i don’t care if they cost $100+
2) Switch up the routine/timing of your activity.
- You must avoid extremes and find ways to incorporate new movement. I challenge you for one month to stop any activity you are currently doing. And use that month to reset yourself. Allow yourself to go on occasional walks (unless walking is what you are compulsive about, if that is the case…then no walks for you). When on the walk, wear sandals and regular clothes, not tennis shoes and workout clothes, so you can’t easily turn the walk into a run. In addition to the leisurely walks, try out 5 new yoga classes in your city. Not hot yoga. Just a normal flow class.
Three questions that can be key in helping you stop compulsively exercising.
- Is it worth it? Is it worth feeling like an insane person who has to go exercise before they can start their day? Are you okay valuing exercise over getting to wake up with your husband and have a slow morning together where you make coffee and cook breakfast together in your pajamas?
- Am I doing this because I love my body or because I hate my body? For a decade, I was exercising because I hated my body. I didn’t care about taking care of it. All I cared about what making it smaller.
- Is your exercise routine improving your health? Or is your exercise routine pulling you deeper into an exercise compulsion/disordered eating/self-hate?
Movement should be about listening to, and enjoying, your body. Viewing exercise as something you “must” do adds more stress to your life rather than less stress. Let go of judging yourself for how much exercise you’ve done, and instead focus on moving because you love your body, instead of moving because you hate your body and want to change it.
The traditional approach is that exercise is for conditioning your body, toning up and burning calories- all to look a certain way. I don’t think constantly fighting your body’s natural size is a very enjoyable way to live. I want to work with my body, not fight against it. I hope you want the same for yourself and I hope this post helps you move in that direction.
Bacon, L.. Aphramor, L. (2014) Body Respect.
Tribole, E.. Resch, E. (2003) Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works.