Movement can be such a joyful part of life. But if there is one thing that being an eating disorders psychologist has taught me, it’s that our relationship with movement can easily cross over from what many call “diligent” to disordered and obsessional. And when this happens, exercise actually can become detrimental to our health. For many, the eating disorder struggle comes with an exercise addiction component- and it can become a significant hurdle in the recovery process. In this blog post, I’m going to spill everything I know about how to move through recovery from an exercise addiction and reclaim the meaning of movement in your life.
Recognizing Compulsive Exercise as Part of an Eating Disorder
If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, you may have (not always!) also struggled with compulsive exercise as a facet of it. Maybe you felt the need to exercise for a very specific amount of time, or maybe you’ve experienced intense guilt or anxiety if you missed a workout. Whatever form it takes, exercise compulsion can be a significant hurdle in the recovery journey (and let’s be honest- just a joy-suck in your overall life). Recognizing compulsive exercise as a part of your eating disorder is crucial in order to move forward in your recovery. It can be difficult to differentiate between “diligent” exercise (think “gym rat” mentality) and compulsion, especially when the line between the two can be blurry. So here is what is important to understand: exercise compulsion involves an unhealthy fixation on exercise that feels rigid, guilt-ridden, and tends to get in the way of other aspects of life. It can also be very physically and mentally unhealthy (i.e. exercising to the point of injury or doing so while ill.) Please know that if you do find yourself struggling with compulsive exercise, you’re not alone. It is SO common for folks who struggle with food and body image to also struggle with some facet of their relationship with movement. Recognizing it as a part of your eating disorder is incredibly important, because you can then begin to address it and move towards a healthier relationship with movement.
The Difference between “Gym Rat” Mentality and Exercise Compulsion
It’s crucial to understand the difference between “normal” (“dedicated,” “diligent” etc.) exercise and exercise compulsion, especially when recovering from an eating disorder. Someone may be an athlete, or a person who finds the gym to be a fun, soothing routine. That person may go multiple times a week- this does not an exercise compulsion make. The key here is that if it is something you enjoy doing and that enhances your overall well-being- if it’s something you can easily take a break from, and that doesn’t take away from other relational aspects of your life- then it’s likely not compulsive. On the other hand, compulsive exercise is characterized by an unhealthy fixation on exercise, leading to excessive and/or rigid exercising that may result in physical and mental harm. It’s something you may feel compelled to do, even when you’re tired, sick, or injured. It’s something that may include a great deal of guilt.
Below is a short check list to help you differentiate. If you answer yes to most of these questions, it is worth talking more about with a specialized clinician:
• If I feel I have eaten too much, I will do more exercise.
• My weekly pattern of exercise is very repetitive.
• I feel extremely guilty if I miss an exercise session.
• I usually continue to exercise despite injury, unless I am very ill or too injured.
• I exercise to burn calories and lose weight.
• If I miss an exercise session, I will try and make up for it when I next exercise.
• If I cannot exercise, I feel agitated and/or irritable.
• If I cannot exercise, I worry that I will gain weight.
• I follow a set routine for my exercise sessions (e.g., run the same route, particular exercises, same amount of time, and so on).
• If I cannot exercise, I feel angry and/or frustrated.
• I feel like I’ve let myself down if I miss an exercise session.
• If I cannot exercise, I feel anxious or distracted.
• I will sometimes miss out on experiences because I feel the need to “fit exercise in.”
Reclaiming the meaning of movement
The journey of reclamation of movement from obsessive to joyful is a long one for many. It is not uncommon for this to involve a cessation of all formal forms of movement (I tend to suggest at least 3 months, but many that I have worked with find one year to be a better “recalibration” time period.)
When you do feel ready to experiment, it can be helpful to go back in time and think about the types of movement that you used to enjoy as a child. (Think swimming, dancing, playing tag, hiking around outside, walks with friends.) Try to focus on only incorporating the activities that used to just be a source of pure joy or fun. It can also be helpful to set a day and time limit for yourself just to start out with. (So only twice a week for up to 30 minutes a session to start, for example.)
Another tip is to “Green Yellow Red” your exercise. That is, create a list of different types of exercise. Green forms of movement are the ones that are just fun, and that you would do even if you knew they would never lead to any weight loss or appearance modification. Yellow activities are the ones that are fun, but that you also do in hopes of weight loss/appearance modification. And red activities are the ones that are not fun, and that you solely do in hopes of weight loss/appearance modification. Then, try to only engage in the green/yellow forms of movement.
Try tracking your mood and anxiety levels while reincorporating movement. Notice when there is an uptick in obsessional thoughts and try to be proactive in acknowledging that and addressing them.
Constantly remind yourself that movement should be a source of pleasure and support, not a source of stress or guilt. Be kind to yourself and celebrate small victories along the way. Remember that the goal is not to achieve a “perfect relationship with movement,” but to develop an overall joyful and sustainable relationship with movement that supports your well-being- one that you are able to constantly check in about and revamp/reduce if need be! Also, it’s important to know that not all people like to engage in formal movement, and that is ok! Maybe movement in your life looks like spontaneous dance parties in your kitchen with your kids. That is more than valid.
Seeking Professional Help for Compulsive Exercise
While it’s important to develop self-awareness and healthy coping mechanisms, seeking professional help for compulsive exercise can be a crucial step in your recovery journey. A mental health professional can help you identify the root cause of your compulsion, develop coping strategies, and guide you towards a healthier relationship with exercise. Additionally, a registered dietitian can help you along this journey in many ways as well.
When in Doubt, Remember to Take a Compassionate Approach
Recovery from compulsive exercise is a process that requires patience, self-compassion, and a kind approach towards yourself. It’s important to recognize that setbacks and challenges are a part of the journey and that healing takes time. Embracing a compassionate approach to your recovery means acknowledging the progress you’ve made, no matter how small, and celebrating it. Whether it’s taking a full break from formal movement, incorporating more rest days, or not participating in movement that you have found to be emotionally or psychologically detrimental, every step you personally take towards a healthier relationship with exercise is worth celebrating.
Practicing self-compassion means being kind to yourself, even when you experience setbacks or challenges. It means acknowledging that you’re doing your best, and that’s enough. It’s okay to make mistakes or struggle along the way. Recovery is a journey, not a destination, and it takes time and effort.
Another aspect of embracing a compassionate approach to recovery is seeking support from those around you. Talking to friends, family, or a mental health professional about your struggles can provide you with the support and guidance you need. It’s important to surround yourself with people who understand and support your recovery journey.
Lastly, remember to be patient with yourself and take it one day at a time. Recovery from compulsive exercise can be SO daunting. I would say it is the most challenging piece of recovery for the majority of folks that I work with. But with self-compassion, curiosity, and gentle self-investigation, it’s possible to overcome it. Keep reminding yourself that you’re worth the effort and that a healthy relationship with movement is something worth hoping and striving for. Embracing a compassionate approach to recovery means treating yourself with kindness and respect and allowing yourself to grow and heal in your own time. You got this friends!
By: Colleen Reichmann, clinical psychologist, founder of Wildflower Therapy
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