Saturday, 24 March 2018

Exercise Addiction // Exercise Isn't Always Healthy

Hello lovely people,

In today's post, I'm going to talk about exercise addiction.

Broadly speaking, exercise addiction could be defined as the compulsion to engage in physical activity, despite potential negative consequences. As with diet culture, where disordered eating is endorsed and encouraged, within gym culture (and also diet culture, to a lesser extent), disordered exercising is actively promoted. 'Beat the burn out', 'no pain, no gain', 'unless you puke, faint or die, keep going' are all genuine gym slogans (and trust me, they aren't the worst). Pushing your body beyond its limits is straight up self harm. Looking after your body means listening to and trusting your body, not blatantly ignoring injury and exhaustion in the pursuit of post-workout validation.

'But exercise is healthy, right?'

I hear you. Yes and no. Of course, exercising can offer a wealth of benefits, such as building stronger muscles, increasing lung capacity, releasing endorphins etc. but this should not be at the cost of your mental health. Why you exercise is so important. Is it to lose weight? Feel in control? Feel better about yourself? 'Tone up'? 'Grow a booty?'

The problem with these intentions is that exercise becomes something that you rely on to boost your self esteem and body image, with the underlying belief that your body is not good enough as it is. We all need attention, validation and love (and crave a sense of community) - and jumping on the gym culture bandwagon can seem like the  perfect solution.

'So how do I know if I have an exercise addiction?'

It's very simple. What happens if you don't exercise? 

Do you get twitchy? Tetchy? Do your thoughts become harsh and critical of your self? Do you feel uncomfortable sitting down or resting for long periods of time? Do you feel dissatisfied with your body and become fixated on the way it looks? Do you eat less food than you would on a 'workout' day because you feel you should?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. I know that a few months ago, I would have answered yes to all those questions; now, I answer yes to just a few. I still find it hard to rest, to let myself be still, to see value in simply being without doing or achieving. That's something I'm working on.

I never fully realised how much of an issue my exercise addiction was until I suffered from extreme exhaustion in the summer time (quite common in ED recovery). I couldn't exercise at all - I could barely move. All I wanted to do was sleep. And so, the thoughts started up - sharp and invasive - and I realised that my attitude towards exercise was still very disordered.

I remember, just after beginning therapy, I decided I was going to run every morning before breakfast (if you can call juice 'breakfast' - which I don't think you can btw). I hated it. I absolutely despised it. I was tired, faint and fed up. If I didn't run, I felt incredibly uncomfortable about my body. The running numbed those feelings, temporarily. However, it was not dealing with the root cause of the problem in any way. I couldn't see how much of an unhealthy coping mechanism it was because in my mind, exercise = healthy, no matter what.

I now have a knee injury as a result of running. My body was screaming at me to stop and I didn't. I wasn't looking after my body. I wan't looking after my mind. I wasn't listening to my soul. Exercise isn't always an act of self-care. Eating 'healthy' food isn't always an act of self-care. Whether an activity is healthy or not is entirely dependant on the thoughts that are fuelling that activity and whether you are mindful of your body and mind's responses to it.

'I don't think that wanting to exercise all the time is a problem'.

I ask you this - when is it going to stop? When are you going to be satisfied? With your body? With the amount of calories burnt? With the number of workouts you do a week? With the 'purity' of the food you eat? When will it be enough?

Let me tell you, it will never be enough - ever. There will always be more you can 'improve' upon. More weights you can lift. More cardio you can endure. But, the thing nobody tells you is that the goal posts will always be moved, further and further away. And even if you 'fix' one part of your body, the problem will manifest itself somewhere else. Trust me, I've been there. Exercise addiction formed a major part of my eating disorder. There was a time when I was too afraid to sit down, for fear of not burning enough calories. I never want another human to feel that way, ever.

'I don't do enough exercise to be addicted to it.'

This is something that I believed for a long, long time. Mainly because the term 'overexercising' is used a lot to describe exercise related purging activity in ED recovery (by professionals and lay-persons alike). However the problem with this term is that is misses the point entirely. It focuses on the amount you are exercising and not the impact that exercise is having on your mental and physical health. I have been told numerous times by physios, GPs, massage therapists and nutritionists that even though I used exercising as a way to purge during my eating disorder and even though it was taking over my life and destroying my health in the process, I simply wasn't exercising enough to be taken seriously.

That sounds oh-so similar to the classic ED phrase 'I'm not sick enough', which has come about at least in part by the mindless treatment of eating disorders by the healthcare system, which is almost entirely weight-focused and not in any way brain-focused. This not only fucks up people's ability to recover, it also stops so many people from accessing treatment in the first place, myself included. Eating disorders and exercise addiction are not mutually exclusive and have no one set 'image' or type of person that they can affect.

'I think I have a problem with exercise, what can I do?'

Understand that exercise addiction is a coping mechanism. By beginning to implement other, healthier coping mechanisms in your life, you can begin to release your dependency on exercise (click here for some ideas). Try resting -see what happens. What thoughts bubble up for you? Write them down. Becoming aware of these thoughts is the first step on the path to change. Be patient with yourself. Understand that exercise addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. Try to identify the motivation behind your behaviour. In my opinion, it can be beneficial to seek support from a therapist, if at all possible. Be sure to take your time to find the right therapist for you.

Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional, these are own my personal experiences and opinions.


I hope you have enjoyed reading this post. Remember to take time out to rest and recharge your batteries.

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

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