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.

immaEATthat for classpass

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…

your brain when you have an exercise compulsion vs when you don't |

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…

take care of yourself. |

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.

immaEATthat for classpass-2

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.

3) Replace the free time you have from not exercising as much with something new.  I suggest reading Body Respect.  And if you are worried about gaining some weight, read this.

day in the life 8-26

Three questions that can be key in helping you stop compulsively exercising.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. When I was very sick with anorexia and obsessive exercise, people would always praise my self discipline.  All they saw was a girl who made it to the gym everyday.  They didn’t see the mental anguish that went along with the compulsive need to exercise every single day for a long period of time.  Now that I’m recovered, I have so much more space in my mind and in my day to do and think about other things.  I agree that behaviors have to change before thoughts can change.  My therapist used to try to get me to cut back on my workouts and I just was not mentally ready.  It took me a while to realize that I had to stop the action before my mind would catch up.

    Thank you for sharing your story and congratulations on breaking free!

    • Thanks for commenting, Amy:) It’s tough to break free from compulsive exercise when you’re getting praise. It takes a lot of honesty with yourself and I agree that you have to be in the right place mentally. I love how you worded the second to last said “you had to wait for your mind to catch up”. The brain is slow and lazy and it doesn’t like change haha.

      People would praise my self discipline too. I feel, for me, self discipline has nothing to do with being healthy. Normal eating is flexible eating. Normal exercise is a non-rigid/flexible exercise routine. I’d much rather live with a high amount of self awareness as to what feels good for my body than a high amount of self discipline.


  2. I LOVE this! My twin sister, Kaci has been such a positive influence on me. She helped me to get a gym membership at the Y, and I completed strength exercises with a trainer for several months. I didn’t care about the calorie burn like I did years ago – I just loved that I finally felt strong. People have given me heck for my small arms all of my life, but I loved seeing muscles grow and develop. Life has been super crazy with renovations on our lake house where we’re holding our wedding. Wedding planning of course has been great but stressful too. So some weeks I go to the gym 3x, sometimes once. But Kaci and I both catch ourselves saying we feel “guilty” if we don’t make it “enough”, whatever that is. I’ve said to her that we must change this thinking. For her, she gets reimbursed from work if she visits a minimum of 10x/month. So that’s what she is striving for, which I do believe isn’t harmful. But we both have gotten to the point where we love it when we go, but we don’t beat ourselves up if we don’t. I love the point you made about spending time with your spouse. Some nights I’d rather just sit with Matt and enjoy time together than rush to fit in a workout. Life is a balancing act, and I commend you for finding your balance then sharing it with us.

    • It sounds like you’ve found a lot of flexibility in your movement! So happy for you! In my experience, the guilt will gradually decrease as you sit with the anxiety produced from NOT exercising. Sitting with the anxiety is hard, but it will get easier the longer you sit with it. Positive affirmations can be helpful here too…something like the 3 questions I asked at the end of the post.

      So glad you’ve found a lot of peace with your movement!!

  3. I just wanted to let you know that this post came with eerily good timing for me. I’ve been struggling to get out of the compulsive exercise mindset. Today, one of my best friend’s birthday parties is taking place right after work, making it impossible for me to fit in a workout. My brain was working overtime last night trying to figure out how I could somehow fit in some sort of exercise today (one possibility: getting up at 4:30 am) before I decided it was just impossible. I was trying my best to accept this and not let myself become wracked with guilt- then I read this! I’ll take it as a sign that I made the right choice :) Thanks for writing this!

    • You made the right choice! I think it’s important to put relationships you care about (i.e. attending your best friend’s birthday) ahead of exercise. Love to you, Tatiana!

  4. I just wanted to say that I really like your pictures of the two brains — they are so helpful and interesting and it’s obvious how hard you worked on them and this post. Thanks for using your creativity to do something great. 

    • LOL thanks for recognizing the hard work that went into making those brains!!! They took forever to put together haha, but I think it’s a fun visual! I’m such a visual person, so I hope others are too!

  5. Another really inspiring post, I especially like the whole “are you doing it because you love your body or hate your body?” part. Really rings true with me that I used to do it because I hated it. So nice to see others recovering too. Thank you for this.

  6. Thank you for this post, Kylie. As a recovered anorexic, this is something that I still struggle with. I have found it extremely helpful to view exercise as a privilege rather than a right/necessity. That way, rather than forcing myself to wake up at 5am and “check it off my to do list” it can be something I look forward to at the end of the day. And if I am truly looking forward to it after a long day in the office, I know it’s something I actually want to do.

    Related to the comment above about discipline, that was also a major trigger for me. I try to remind myself that people who haven’t been through the disordered eating/exercise struggle don’t get that for us it requires more discipline to NOT do it. You just have to do what’s right for you and drown out the external noise.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve been a reader for a long time and your perspective has really helped me through my recovery.

    • Ooo I love that, Allie –> “view exercise as a privilege rather than a right/necessity.”

      Thanks for reading the blog and contributing such a great comment. This comment will definitely help others who are reading!!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this! Although I don’t struggle with this like I used to, I can relate to everything you shared in this article. The biggest thing that helped me get over my exercise and food obsession was finding a greater joy/purpose in life. It sounds vague and somewhat cliche, but it’s truly what helped me. Like you drew in the images above, when the brain is filled with other thoughts (creativity, purpose/goal, things that make you happy, things that keeping you busy etc.) it pushes out the other thoughts, eventually, because you realize there are more important things in life that you were created for. I know it may not be the same for everyone, but that is one of the key things that helped me, and I am so grateful. Also, finding your spirituality, whatever that may be, is a tremendous help!

    Thank you for putting this into the universe. xoxoxoxo

    • I don’t think it sounds cliche at all! Discovering a purpose/creating a life that was more interesting than being overly thin really helped me as well.

  8. This is perfect. I used to have a real problem with this as well as restrictive and overly-“healthy” eating. Now, whenever thoughts that I “should” exercise, or that I’ve gained a couple pounds, etc. creep into my head I force myself to think of all the things I want out of life and the people I love, and – surprise! – they have nothing to do with my weight. I’ve been doing this for the past few years and it has helped my mental health tremendously.

    I love your posts like this, I know they mean so much to so many people. (I also love your recipe and life posts too – so keep doing your thing, girl :) )

  9. Wow this post came on a day I really needed it. Thank you!

  10. This is a quote that someone read to me yesterday! It’s about the body after pregnancy, but I loved it and definitely think it can be applied to just aging in general. What a fresh perspective on our bodies as tools, not as museum pieces to be displayed.

    “You may have big scars, stretch marks, and loose skin that bothers you. You might not have time to exercise the way you used to. All of these things can be seen as an offense against us—against our bodies…our bodies are tools, not treasures. You should not spend your days trying to preserve your body in its eighteen-year-old form…Motherhood uses your body in a way that God designed it to be used…But motherhood is what your stomach as made for—and any wear and tear that it shows is simply the sign of a well-used tool. We are not to treat our bodies like museum pieces. They were not given to us to preserve, they were given to us to use. So use it cheerfully, and maintain it cheerfully. When you are working hard to lose the baby weight (as you may need to), think of it as tool maintenance. You want to fix your body up in order to be able to use it some more. It might be used for more children, or it might be used to take care of the children you have. We should not be trying to fix it up to put it back on a shelf out of harm’s way or to try to make ourselves look like nothing ever happened. Your body is a tool. Use it.” – -Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years

  11. As someone who struggles with this daily, I appreciate this post. I read your blog (and others with a similar message) with the hope to change my mindset. Please keep up the good work! You are an inspiration!

  12. Love this. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. This is something I struggle with myself and answering those “questions” definitely makes you stop and think. Especially as someone who sits at a desk all day for work and misses the activity of college in NYC and walking everywhere, I can be a bit obsessive with moving. Your posts are always the best! :)

    • Glad this post possibly planted a seed:) I do think our bodies were made to move and sitting at a desk all day is hard. My husband asked his company if he could bring in a stand-up desk and they told him no…how ridiculous! I sit all day on days I see clients…it usually leaves me craving some type of movement by the end of the day. I view exercise cravings just like I do food cravings. I want to exercise just enough to satisfy the craving (like I want to eat just enough, say, carrot cake to satisfy a carrot cake craving). The amount of time it takes to satisfy my movement craving varies week to week and I’m okay listening to my body and letting it decide.

      Like you and your city, I so wish Houston was a more walkable city where I could walk/bike to work, lunch and the grocery store…but it’s not. It’s still a great place to live and focus on living out my values that have nothing to do with over exercising/being obsessive with moving.

      Love to you, Meghan:)

  13. Thank you for this post. I really identified with it. When I was in the midst of my orthorexia, I didn’t realize what my over-exercising was doing to me. I power-walked/jogged 4 miles on Christmas morning… at 4am… just so I didn’t miss a day. That’s not healthy, no matter how many people praised me for it. It was so hard not feeling guilty for skipping my workouts as I started to break those behaviors but it’s finally feeling okay to skip a day.
    I now walk to prevent back pain (that seems to flair up if I miss more than a day or two of moving) but I walk at a human pace and take the time to stretch afterward instead of using those extra minutes to burn more calories.

    • Thanks for the comment, Becky! It’s so hard to see what you’re doing to yourself when you’re in the middle of the disorder (I KNOW!). Glad you’ve been able to break those destructive behaviors. They can become such a cycle you get stuck in.

      I get back pain too if I don’t move. I’m all for listening to your body and realizing what feels best for you.

  14. The only reason my compulsion stopped was because I broke my leg into 50 pieces while out bicycling at 6am on a Saturday morning. As you can imagine, it was quite a while before exercise was an option, I exercise regularly now, but therapy after my accident (for anorexic behaviors and over exercise) helped me see it as something I do to strengthen and help my body, not to punish it.

    • Man, Susan! All I can say is YIKES! Sounds so painful. I’m glad to hear you’re in a better place now:) I’m pretty grateful for the back & nerve pain I dealt with. It allowed me to become such a better version of myself.

  15. Kylie you could not have said this any better! Sharing this with so many of my runner friends! As a former division 1 cross country runner, the DSM for exercise obsession applies to like.. everyone I know. And while competitive sports can be healthy and fun, it is such a slipperly slope. One of the reasons I got out of running was because I felt like my brain space was 100% occupied by things that didn’t really matter and I needed to make room for my own thoughts and opinions and goals. Saving this article for later too because I know there will be a time when I need to read it again :) thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for reading, Megan! Getting out of running must have been a tough choice for you. I felt like when I had to stop running I went through a grieving process. Stopping was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done…and I wasn’t even a competitive cross country runner! So I can only imagine how tough that choice was for you! Good for you for taking care of yourself and making room for your own thoughts so you could become the real YOU:)

  16. Thank for articulating everything that I have been feeling the past four years. I am getting over an exercise compulsion, and can’t express how much your blog has helped. It made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and has helped to shift my mindset towards health. It is so important to have these discussions. It is still something people don’t fully understand, but exercise becomes a weight hanging over every decision you make throughout the day.
    I can remember having the flu and desperately trying to do at least a ten minute workout before spending hours googling how long you can take off before gaining weight.
    Now it seems crazy to me that my body was telling me to chill and I just kept forcing it to move.

    I found taking one month off just impossible and too hard for my mindset. Instead I started going to yoga on Saturdays and began to replace my cardio/weights with a yoga class. Then I began doing that three days a week and gradually I was okay with doing absolutely nothing some days. I think yoga is a big one because it taught me to love my body for what it can DO! not for what it looks like.

    I recently got back from my honeymoon and it was so amazing and freeing to feel like I didn’t have to wake up early and workout, I could actually enjoy myself!

  17. I was told by two separate nutritionists that I needed to cut back on my exercise, and while I did start incorporating more rest days it wasn’t until I started working with Robyn/Cody that I really started to respect the “am I doing this because I love my body or hate it” mentality. I have to say – I still have to use your quote to calibrate! :)

  18. Kylie!!  Thank you SOSOSO much for sharing this!!!  As someone who struggled with both orthorexia and exercise addiction, the latter has been the much-harder mindset to address.  Despite being intertwined, I was constantly finding myself succumbing to the comparison trap regarding my exercise addiction past, because my behaviors weren’t nearly as extreme as most stories out here, though my mindset was just as disordered.  I still struggle with knowing when my body wants movement vs. my disordered past influencing me, and since my preferred style of movement tends to be the gentler variety that everyone regards as “bonus” or for “when you’re feeling under the weather”, it can be really hard to combat those voices in my head.  Thank you so much again, for giving your point of view and for being so inclusive and non-judgemental.  I love your infographs and charts; everything you said made me feel so validated and supported and reminded me of how I really want my mind to be. <3

  19. As a eating disorders professional and a group fitness instructor, I am preaching this balance all the time – I actually have been presenting on this topic recently at several conferences. It’s so important to have people understand that there is such a thing as too much, and life is so much more enjoyable (and “healthy”) when you move you body in a loving and compassionate way that feels good to you. Thank you for sharing your story and helping others in becoming aware of this issue.

  20. Thank you Kylie, thank you. You always have the right words, and a way of getting me to think more about how I relate to my body and how I nourish and move it.
    But, I have a confession: I get scared and anxious of days I don’t run.
    When my weekly mileage doesn’t add up to what I think it “should” I get scared that I’m suddenly going to gain weight, or forget how to run, or find myself back at square one.
    I get scared when I can’t exercise.
    For so long exercise was a way that I kept my weight down. I pounded through workouts on little food, before I took a mega dose of laxatives, instead of going to dinner with friends, early in the morning or late at night – whatever it took to get those kilos to come off.
    I’ve left those unhealthy behaviours behind. It’s been about two years since I last purged.
    I’m learning to eat to fuel my body in a mindful way; to respect its hunger and fullness, and to find the foods that make it feel best whether that’s fresh fruits and veggies, or an ice cream cone.
    As much as an introvert ever will, I love going out and having dinner, exploring new places, and being social.
    But, I’m still left with the fear when I can’t exercise, or when I just don’t want to.
    I have forced myself to go out running on days when I can hardly keep my eyes open at my computer. Sometimes that’s been a good thing, I just needed to get out and stretch my body and feel it move to wake myself up.
    But sometimes, it’s been a bad thing. Sometimes I need to let this body rest. I need to respect its boundaries and let it be when it needs to.
    I’m really learning to do this. I take yoga once a week, and I have replaced at least two runs a week with gentle walks in the morning sunshine. I am working with a PT to do some strength training instead of cardio to enjoy my body in a different way.
    I’m learning to breathe again and enjoy movement instead of being obsessive. Thank you for all your wisdom. I hope you enjoy the rest of your holiday :)

    • Hey Amy. Thanks for the comment :) It sounds like you’ve come such a long way! And I want to encourage you that…you didn’t come this far to only come this far. Keep practicing respecting your body. It’s a wonderful feeling to not feel like you are fighting your body. By taking gentle walks and incorporating in yoga, you are doing what you need to do to move towards a place of respect and peace with your body. So pumped for you!

  21. Love love love this. I always remind myself that I workout because I love my body, not because I want to change it. Switching my mindset to that has helped me tremendously in my relationship with exercise.

  22. Your articles are incredible. I can relate to you on so many levels, it’s like you wrote this specifically about me. I want to work *with* my body and free up brain space. A-freaking-men. THANK YOU for doing what you do and for being so open and honest. It is so helpful to your readers.

  23. I just want to reach through this computer and give you a hug!

    This would have taken balls to write but it seriously is EXACTLY what I needed to hear at this point in recovery.

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  27. Thank you for this post. I’ve been struggling with my body so much recently. I’m 34 and my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I know I need to make healthier food choices and exercise, but I struggle to stay in a routine. I struggle to get to the gym, to yoga, to any sort of exercise class. I struggle to listen to what my body needs and wants and I don’t know how to fix it. 

    • Hey Brianna! If you are subscribed to the blog and get my emails, I’m doing a Mindful Eating Challenge (it’s free) to help readers get in tune with their bodies. Maybe it could help you! Just subscribe to my emails if you aren’t already :)

  28. Thank you for this amazing post, Kylie! I’m hoping you or you readers can provide advice – a close friend of mine has developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise (exercising even when injured/in pain, avoiding plans to work out). I want to help her towards her but road to recovery, but I’m not sure how to approach the topic as she doesn’t seem to be aware of the problem. Any thoughts? Thanks and keep doing the amazing, inspiring work that you do!

  29. I love this whole post- and reading the comments! But I just want to say that I am particularly grateful for how honest you were about shifting between “accepting” your body and “loving” your body. I have been working with some health coaches to try to overcome my own body image/compulsive exercise/disordered eating/perfectionist issues and I have often found myself feeling like they are “on the other side” of these struggles, which is both inspiring and discouraging- because while I want to be at peace with my body, I often doubt that I will ever be able to 100% LOVE my body. So it was refreshing to hear that even though you have reached a better place with yourself, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies! Thanks so much for sharing… I know you said at the beginning that you weren’t sure if you had enough clarity surrounding your journey to share, but I think that’s exactly what made this post so relatable. Love your work! 

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