This post is Part 1 of my exercise addiction series on coping with overexercising, compulsive exercise, undereating, and intuitive movement in eating disorder recovery.
Read Part 2 next week: “How I Stopped Overexercising and Undereating in Recovery from Orthorexia”
WHAT IS EXERCISE ADDICTION?
I remember fighting my exercise addiction, only to jump out of my bed before falling asleep because I couldn’t go a day without doing some sort of formal exercise routine. I had to do pushups. So I got up, did pushups, then went back to bed.
Exercise “addiction” really isn’t an addiction, but a compulsive attitude towards exercise. Exercise addiction is more than just overtraining. When you pair overtraining with a history of disordered eating habits and body image struggles, it becomes an addiction. It feels out of your control, it causes anxiety, and it interferes with living your life because you can’t break from your routine. Ultimately, exercise addiction happens when our exercise routine feels like it has way more control over our habits then we do.
Isn’t that crazy? But it’s so true!
According to the NEDA, the signs and symptoms of compulsive exercise include:
- Intense anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of guilt, and/or distress if unable to exercise
- Maintaining excessive, rigid exercise regimen – despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury
- Discomfort with rest or inactivity
- Exercise used to manage emotions
- Exercise as a means of purging (needing to “get rid of” or “burn off” calories)
- Exercise as permission to eat
- Exercise that is secretive or hidden (1)
And I can totally say I experienced ALL of these! I thought I was being healthy by never missing a workout and pushing myself as hard as I could… but I was actually being unhealthy because I never allowed myself to rest or properly fuel my active lifestyle with enough food.
WHAT DID MY EXERCISE ADDICTION LOOK LIKE?
I worked out at least 5 days a week, hard. My 2 rest days (if I actually took them) included doing yoga or stretching because I couldn’t allow my body to do “nothing”. Any time I tried to skip a workout, I felt intense anxiety and guilt. Even if I was exhausted, it didn’t matter… I still did my workout. I truly believed my exercise and food routines were the most important parts of my life. I was so afraid of messing up, then losing what I worked so hard for, and my worst fear of it all… gaining weight.
I told myself that I worked out because “it made me feel good”… but it was MORE than that. I felt like I had to workout in order to be happy with myself. I had to burn off my calories so that I could “deserve” the food I wanted. I had to earn the right to nourish my body. THAT is what compulsive exercise and disordered eating will make you believe… but it’s not the way to be healthy OR happy.
As a result of my overexercising and undereating…
- My battle with orthorexia was harder to beat.
- I lost my period and messed up my hormones.
- I felt exhausted easily and was chronically stressed.
- I was isolated from my friends and family.
- I struggled with body image issues and self-love.
Do you want to actually nourish your body and heal your relationship with food and fitness? Learn how I found food freedom instead.
WHY DOES EXERCISE ADDICTION HAPPEN?
1. Control and Obsession
The thing is, we obsess about exercise in order to gain “control” in our lives. But guess what. We can’t actually control our lives by controlling our exercise. It doesn’t work like that! We think that if we can have a perfect fitness routine that everything else will fall into place… We’ll have a “perfect body”, we’ll be fit and healthy, and as a result, we’ll finally be happy. But it’s not true!
I can tell you right now, that overexercising didn’t make me happier, healthier, or more fun to be around. It actually made me exhausted, cranky, and isolated. The thing is, I tried to gain control and make myself happy by controlling something easier to control… my exercise routine. But I wasn’t really gaining control over the things that were making me unhappy… so this plan, of course, backfired into an unhealthy relationship with exercise. The more I worked out, the less happy I was, the harder it was to find happiness in anything else.
What a vicious cycle, huh?
I obsessively controlled my exercise routine by:
- Counting my daily steps and calories burned using a fitness tracker.
- Setting a specific exercise routine for each day of the week.
- Tracking my weight lifting progress and recording the speed and distance of my runs.
- Not taking rest days and pushing myself to the max.
2. Weight Loss and Body Image
The most obvious answer to why we struggle with exercise addiction is because we want to change the way we look. Most of us (for at least some amount of time) work out to lose weight or to change our appearance. We believe, from a young age, that we need to lose weight, be thin, and be fit in order to be accepted as beautiful. And as a result, we keep working towards accepting our body by changing your appearance. But that system is flawed.
We absolutely have the right to accept our body and love it as it is, without changing it. Working out NEVER WORKS if it’s used ONLY to change your body… That will only lead to a cycle of restriction and body image struggles. (Believe me, I’ve been there!) Instead, love and accept your body as it is now… and then… if you want to work out, do it because it adds to your life, not because you’re desperate to change your life.
I used food and fitness to change my body and obsess over my body image by:
- Restricting my food on days I didn’t work out.
- Counting my calories and tracking my macros.
- Eating a low-calorie diet that was less than my body needed at my activity level.
- Obsessively weighing myself, taking selfies, and checking for my abs in the mirror.
3. Outside influences on your behavior.
We also believe that working out daily and obsessing over our fitness is normal. Just like we believe obsessing over our food is normal (cue orthorexia). We follow Instagram fitness models, live with roommates who never take rest days, play on a sports team, work out with personal trainers, and surround ourselves with people who are also “obsessed” with exercising for whatever reason. But YOU are the boss of YOUR body, and you have to learn to honor when you need and STOP comparing yourself to everyone else.
I sabotaged myself by…
- Overtraining and acting like a fitness competitor.
- Forgetting to honor my UNIQUE body’s natural need for rest and nourishment.
- Following social media accounts that triggered obsessive and restrictive behaviors.
WHY DOES YOUR BODY NEED REST?
1. IT PREVENTS AND HEALS INJURIES
I learned the hardest way that my body needed rest… getting injured. The “working out without stopping” phase came to an end after a few years because my body couldn’t stand up to that level of intensity anymore (no surprise there). I had plantar fasciitis, an inflammation in the bottom of your feet – at one point I couldn’t WALK. I had to CRAWL. That’s what over-exercising did to me. It FORCED me to finally do what I was scared to do all along… REST. It’s not meant to scare you, but it’s the very real reality of pushing your body too hard for too long without proper rest and nourishment.
2. IT PROTECTS YOUR HORMONES AND OVERALL HEALTH
If you ask me, healing my relationship with exercise was a huge help in getting my period back, which I talked about in this post. According to Dr. Axe, “Not giving your body and hormones the time to adjust to exercise can cause injuries, mood problems, negative changes in your metabolism and “burnout” within a couple of months’ time. While too much exercise alone might not be the sole reason for negative symptoms in some people, overtraining combined with stress from other factors like imbalanced hormones, a poor diet, and a lack of rest or sleep can all accumulate to serious bodily damage.” (2) And that’s so right! I absolutely experienced the metabolic burnout. I was chronically stressed and fatigued, and I lost my period from undereating and overexercising at the same time.
3. IT PREVENTS EXCESS STRESS ON YOUR MIND AND BODY
Yes, exercise is stressful! While it can be a good kind of stress, there is such thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise. I talk about going past the tipping point of a good thing in this post about obsession, but the whole idea is that we need a balance. We need to find that sweet spot of happiness and healthiness when it comes to our life… which is exactly what I teach in Food Freedom.
HOW DO YOU STOP OVEREXERCISING?
1. EVALUATE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH EXERCISE HONESTLY
I started out as a cardio bunny, first trying to lose weight in the gym as a freshman in college. In my sophomore year, I traded the school gym in for a gym membership and lifted weights, did yoga classes, did yoga on my own, and did cardio weight training classes too. That’s exactly where I found my ED because I was overtraining AND undereating.
So ask yourself…
- What do you have to say about your relationship with exercise?
- How did it start?
- Why did you start it?
- What motivates you to exercise?
- Why do you have the routine that you do?
- What feels good about it?
- What doesn’t feel good about it?
- What would you like to change?
2. PINPOINT YOUR ANXIETIES
If you’re breaking free from compulsive exercise, you’ll absolutely be feeling some guilt and anxiety around the change of decreasing your workouts or taking a break from working out altogether. You’re not alone! And in order to deal with that guilt and anxiety, you’ll also need to understand what’s causing those feelings in the first place.
- What are you most afraid of?
- Why do you push so hard?
- What makes you so anxious about not working out?
- If you took a break, what would happen?
- Are your fears rational or irrational?
The most common anxiety is the fear of gaining weight, which you can learn about here.
3. BE HONEST ABOUT WHAT YOUR BODY NEEDS
Do you need to quit exercising cold-turkey, or should you just slow down your exercise a bit?
Honestly, that all depends on YOU. I wish I could tell you exactly what the best answer is, but you truly have to listen to your own body. (You probably know the answer in your heart already.) Personally, I gave up exercise cold-turkey because of my injury. My body was so overworked that it actually forced me to take a long break from working out. But you have to make your decision about what works best for you!
- Are you exhausted often?
- Are you taking enough rest days?
- Is your body telling you to take a break?
- What’s not feeling good?
- Would you be happier if you exercised less?
- Are you eating enough on rest days?
- Are you eating enough on workout days?
Exercising less and eating more were the scariest parts of healing my relationship with exercise, which is why I’ve talked about how to cope with weight gain here, and how to practice body positivity here.
4. TRANSITION INTO HOLISTIC + INTUITIVE MOVEMENT
Holistic movement is something very special that involves listening to your body. Instead of “exercising” to get in shape and burn calories… holistic and intuitive movement focuses on moving your body in ways that benefit your mind and your body. This type of movement isn’t something you can automatically switch too, though. I’ve talked about transitioning into intuitive eating after an eating disorder in this post, and the same idea applies.
We have to make changes at the pace that makes sense for us. If we make a drastic change that we’re not ready for, it won’t stick. So, we have to make changes that are sustainable, by transitioning from restriction into intuitive movement.
- Adding in one more rest day a week.
- Trading a high-intensity workout for a low-intensity workout.
- Cutting the workout from one hour to a half hour.
- Taking a walk instead of taking a spin class.
- Going to a slow-paced yoga instead of a hot yoga flow.
- Go for a hike with friends instead of a run by yourself.
…Or you can always quit cold-turkey if that works for you.
Personally, during my transition, I walked my dog, took a yoga class here and there, swam in the pool in the summer, went hiking with my friends on occasion, but that was really it. I went from working out REALLY hard every single day to not working out for an entire year, to the occasional light workout. And now, after recovering I’m slowly adding in a few weight training sessions every week in addition… because I’m finally ready for it.
But really I barely workout, I just live my life and workout intuitively. If I’m tired, I don’t work out. If I feel like moving, I do what feels good to me. I don’t have a schedule. I don’t have a routine. I just live. AND IT FEELS AMAZING 🙂
TAKEAWAY: FITNESS NEEDS TO BE SUSTAINABLE
I knew I needed a HEALTHIER relationship with my food, fitness, and body image… so I had to really ask myself WHY I was doing what I was doing! And if that answer was to “change my body”, I had to choose a different option. Honestly, nothing has been a better decision for my health and happiness!
Some of the amazing things that happened when I stopped exercising only to control my body and my food…
- I found happiness in movement without “exercising”.
- I had so much more energy for daily activities.
- I stopped needing to “earn” or “deserve” my food.
- Finding Food Freedom became SIMPLE.
What matters is you start doing things to help yourself — you don’t have to do it all perfectly, especially not all at once! It’s a long game journey, baby steps build a foundation of healing that lasts a lifetime!
Read Part 2: “How I Stopped Overexercising and Undereating in Recovery from Orthorexia“, where I break down how to NOURISH your body with enough food, whether you’re working out or not.