Now I’m not sure who will be reading this. Maybe you, yourself struggle with exercise addiction, obsession, or over training. Or perhaps maybe you know a loved one who is struggling with this. Or maybe, none of those apply to you and you just stopped by to read and your view is much appreciated. Whatever your situation is, I want to share my view of being obsessed and having an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Hopefully, someone can benefit from it.
• • • • • • • •
I think that an exercise addiction can progress either slowly or quickly. I think in some forms it comes on quickly, but is not recognized until it is well underway. Or perhaps it comes on slowly and progresses steadily until visual effects are noticeable and the pieces of the puzzle are put together.
For me, I cant really say for sure how my own progression of exercise addiction progressed. In regards to how slowly or quickly it developed, I am unsure. And I am sure a lot of people wrestle with the question of how on earth they got to the point of full blown obsessive exercise. It’s tough because unless your watching for it, it is not necessarily something you can pin point easily. And that’s exactly how it was for me.
When I started running more and more, I don’t think anyone really though much of it. I have been highly active all my life, so it was no surprise when I started doing more individual workouts and doing more intense outside training. Exercise is a part of me, that was just a fact. This being the case, the obsession went undetected for a while. At the time, I was even unaware.
It’s tricky because my eating disorder started out with restricting, and working out and exercise was the symptom that came next, the successor in the disorder I guess you could say. Running, what once was something I did because I loved it with a fiery burning passion, (which I still do) turned into something I “needed” to do. I was constantly overwhelmed with the feeling that I “had” to workout.
I think this distinction is an important aspect to watch for. It’s a slippery slope that you don’t want to go down. If you find yourself feeling like you “have” to work out or “need” to, then I would say that you need to re evaluate your relationship with exercise. A good question to ask yourself is whether or not you actually, truly want to workout. What are your reasons for working out? What is the thought process behind the compulsion of needing to? Are you working out for the sole reason of burning calories, or burning off that cookie you ate? (News flash: it doesn’t work like that). Are you running ten miles because if you don’t then you might gain weight? I could go on to list a million different thought processes that might signify disorder thoughts, My advice would be to really contemplate the motive behind your workouts. Is it healthy?
Another aspect to look at is how you react and feel when you cant exercise. Ask yourself, “If I was not able to exercise later today then would my mood plummet? Would I be anxious and irritated? Would I be stressed?
For me, this was a biggy. When the exercise obsession really kicked in, missing a workout was NOT okay. No sir. I was dependent on working out. Too dependent, which is something I see all too clearly now. Missing a workout because of a change in schedule, or even when my mom began to decrease my exercise was rough. It caused me to be in awful moods. I constantly felt down, moody, and angry at who knows what. I was constantly irritated For those of you who have ever experienced an eating disorder know exactly what I am talking about. When you are starving, restricting, and cant workout. Bad combination right there. Lets just say irritation is at an all time high.
In recovery, I had to learn to detach myself and my well being from exercise. During my early recovery process, I was limited to one mile once a week. I still remember how ridiculous that used to sound to me. One mile? Is that a joke? But as my recovery went on, I began to be thankful for that single mile. That single mile some weeks even turned into no mileage at all. Why? Because I personally came to a place in my mindset in which I realized that not working out was not going to make me fat. I was not going to lose all of my stamina, muscle, or gain thousands of pounds overnight. I found that I had the strength to completely detach myself from something that I had placed so much value and dependency on. In the long run, my body I am sure was thankful for the rest. I was giving it time to repair and heal the damage I had done.
Throughout this process, I have learned to not be dependent on working out. I used to think it was the one and only thing that could help me to physically, mentally, and emotionally feel better. But that is simply not the case. Yes, the truth is that exercise leaves me feeling amazing. It is a great passion and an amazing stress reliever for me, always has been, and I am sure always will be. But it is no longer my only way to relieve stress.
I can gladly say that this realization has been a key factor in my view of recovery and exercise. It has helped me shift my mentality. I now see it as a healthy way to relieve stress, or better yet, I see it as a part of me because I enjoy it and want to. So how about you? Are you dependent on exercise?
For me personally, another component of my exercise addiction had to do with food. It all started with food. When I first developed an eating disorder, although I was not diagnosed yet, I was enveloped in orthorexia. Orthorexia is what I would describe as an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods. I was engrossed in the mindset of eating healthy. Only foods that I saw as clean, pure, and “okay”. This left me with a very rigid mindset in terms of food, which then led to my diagnoses some time later of anorexia.
In my obsessive exercise, it was also paired with an obsession with eating healthy. But that obsession to eat healthy turned into not only eating healthy, but less ad less and less food. I began to only eat certain foods. In all honesty, at one point I probably had about ten safe foods. My diet consisted of those same foods day in and day out. Consistency was my friend, while spontaneity, restaurants, and unknown family dinners were not. This component also included the feeling of panic, fear, and extreme anxiety, I was constantly planning my meals, although I knew I would be eating the same thing. It was all about control. And those times when I had to eat dinner with my family, causing me to have to eat what was being made, I would panic. It would change my rigid plan and placed me outside of my control and comfort one, causing my anxiety to be through the roof.
Exercise and food consumption for me personally were very intertwined. It seemed like the more I exercised, the more rigid I became with my food. The more mileage I ran, the less I ate. Those two components came one after the other, but they stuck together.
Another aspect, which is hard to admit, is judging. Whether we like it or not, judging is a big aspect of exercise addiction. There was a good portion of my eating disorder where it seemed liked all I did was judge and compare myself to others. I would judge someone just because they did not run as much as me. Which is silly because who cares? I would compare how I looked with other people and I would compare our exercise routines. Now, I don’t care what other people are doing. I don’t judge someone based on how many miles they ran. It sounds so ridiculous, but I think most people with an exercise obsession or especially an eating disorder can relate. I mean, back me up here guys, I know I’m not the only one.
Another aspect of exercise addiction has to do with having to do certain exercises every. single. day. no. matter. what. For me, there were times when I had to do squats, leg exercise, push ups, or whatever the obsession was at the time. But throughout my whole exercise addiction before, and actually into recovery, I would have to do ab exercises every day. Let me tell you, doing ab exercises every darn day was tiring. There were times when I even had to do it twice a day. And like I said above, this was one of those things that I felt the “need” to. I did not break this unhealthy habit until a couple months into recovery. By this time, I had come to terms with the exercise restrictions that I was given. I was increasing my intake with no argument. I was working on the mental aspects of recovery. Everything was going along smoothly. But there was that one thing that kept me from really letting go of the obsessive control I had with exercise. I woke up one day and said that enough was enough. I was going to stop doing ab exercises cold turkey for as long as I needed to to break the obsession. And so I did. Was it easy? Nope. In fact, my body image plummeted when I decided not to engage in that behavior. I gave up complete control of exercise. In the moment it felt awful, but now I know that I would not be on the road to full recovery without taking that step.
Now, this example was just my experience, as with this entire post. Honestly, there is ore that I could delve into, but due to the fact that it would be a novel, I wont.
I realize that everyone’s experience is different and I believe that everyone who has struggled with obsessive exercise has a different experience when it comes to what it looked like for them.But I think some of the main components of what an exercise addiction looks like involves control. Whether you like it or not, control is what feeds the addiction. I know for me personally, although I did not see it at the time, control was what kept me doing ab exercises every day. Control was what caused me to have anxiety when I could not workout. Losing that control was one of the scariest aspects of my recovery. But the good news is, that control is something you can change from a negative light to a positive light. In terms of exercise, a once negative outlook on exercise mentality can be changed for the better. It takes a lot of mental work, but in the long run it will be worth it.
I fully, truly, honestly believe that no matter what form of exercise addiction you or someone you know struggles with can be overcome. Absolutely!
I know that first and foremost, you must admit that yes, you have crossed that line. You have overstepped into an unhealthy region of exercise mentality. Acceptance is key, and the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can overcome it.
Second, you must dig deep and evaluate the areas that you need to focus on. What is the root of your exercise addiction? What are the thoughts you have when exercising? What are the thoughts you have about exercise in general? Are you working out for hours on end? Is ten miles too little? Do you feel guilty for skipping a workout? Does it effect your eating? There are thousands of questions you could contemplate. But if your being honestly with yourself, you know you, and you know what your journey with exercise looks like.
Third, create a plan of action. If your are in recovery and still running miles upon miles. Or maybe you exercise in secret because you are not allowed to exercise (its okay guys, I’ve been there too). Or maybe you have that one exercise that you absolutely hate but only do because your disorder tells you to. Whatever it may be, my best advice that helped me the most was to stop. Stop cold turkey. I know that sounds impossible, but its not. Trust me. Its hard, yes, but not impossible. The longer you go without doing it the easier it will become. The fears, worries, and thoughts, yes they will come. But you know what, they will dissipate, your mindset will become more healthy and your relationship with exercise will look and feel so much different.
Four, find accountability. Doing this all on your own will be hard. In this case, it will be of great benefit for your to find someone whom you can trust to confide in. For me, I found this through my dietitian and therapist. Find someone who you can tell about your struggle, your plan, and even the times you may mess up. And if that happens, don’t be hard on yourself. Its all a learning process.
Recovery is not perfect, that’s what makes it beautiful.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you struggle with this topic? Or have you? If so, how did you overcome it?
PS. If you would like to email me to talk about anything you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: I am not a health professional. I am simply talking from experience. I value any form or method of recovery, whether it looks like mine or not. I believe that each individual’s journey is different, and in that case each recovery is going to look different. Any of the advice given on this blog is purely out of experience, and given in the instance that it may help someone. My recovery may look much different than yours, which is absolutely okay. My goal is to provide a place where we can connect, share, and help each other to achieve a common goal: recovery. Because in the end, the most important aspect of recovery is you.