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Recovering From Compulsive Exercise in An Exercise Obsessed World

On a regular basis, we are inundated with unhealthy messages about exercise. From fitspo on Instagram and influencers showing off their 6-packs to messages about ‘no days off’-disordered attitudes towards exercise are everywhere. Compulsive exercise (i.e. exercise addiction) is a socially acceptable prison cell. I’ve been there and I remember feeling so incredibly trapped-yet unable to stop my rigid exercise routine. The following are a few tips for recovering from compulsive exercise in an exercise obsessed world.

1. Surround yourself with pro-recovery, body positive content and work to eliminate any fitspo. When I was trapped by an exercise compulsion, I remember following fitspo influencers on social media. They talked about having a healthy relationship to movement-but their feeds were full of their chiseled muscles and orthorexic looking chicken bowls. I didn’t realize how much these accounts impacted me until I began recovery and unfollowed them.

Step 1: is to think about the areas in your life that reinforce your unhealthy attitudes towards exercise and then cut out/set boundaries with what you can.  So this means not only unfollowing social media accounts that cause you to feel guilty for not working out (yesss this includes that friend or family member constantly posting about their workouts)-but also setting boundaries or eliminating things IRL that trigger negative thoughts about your body and exercise compulsion.  Then, it’s important to add in accounts that promote body diversity (i.e. people of all different shapes and sizes) and think about what you can start to surround yourself with in your life that promotes healthier messages i.e. podcasts (I’m looking at you Food Psych!), books, articles, friends, and hobbies that have nothing to do with your body or exercise.

2. Notice the stories that you are telling yourself around exercise.  It’s also important to start to be mindful of the stories that you are telling yourself around exercise.  

The next step is to write down some of your unhealthy thoughts about exercise and then write back to them with more neutral and/or positive thoughts.  Rather than trying to determine if the thought is true-identify is the thought helpful or unhelpful in terms of getting you in the direction of a life aligned with your true-life values.

Unhelpful Thought: ‘I’m so lazy for not exercising today. This is a slippery slope to never moving again.’

Helpful Thought: Not exercising today is actually way harder for you. So, this is something to be proud of in terms of helping you to recover. It’s the opposite of lazy. Just because you took a day off doesn’t mean that you will never move again. That’s super black and white-and even if all you did was activities in your daily life (rather than a formal exercise routine) that would be ok too.  It’s important to practice dialoguing back and forth-and to coach yourself in the moment by reframing your thoughts as much as possible.  It’s also useful to remind yourself that ‘more exercise’ isn’t always healthier (in fact it can be quite unhealthy in certain conditions) and that sometimes the healthiest choice for your body and mind is rest. Ultimately, exercise is a stressor on the body and if you are anxious about fitting in exercise etc it raises cortisol (the stress hormone)-which is also not healthy.

3. Identify the function of your compulsive exercise. One good exercise is to make a DBT pro/con list of continuing to engage in compulsive exercise. You list out all the ‘pros’ and all the ‘cons’ and then next to each one write whether it is short term or long term-and then tally them out at the end. Compulsive exercise is serving a function in your life (i.e. anxiety reduction) and it’s important to identify the purposes that it is serving for you and more values-aligning ways that you can get any of the valid and adaptive needs met.  For example, if compulsive exercise feels like it’s helping with your anxiety (spoiler alert, it decreases anxiety in the short term but increases it in the long-term and makes you more reliant on the behavior), think about other coping strategies that you could use for anxiety i.e. watching a distracting TV show, aromatherapy, playing with dogs, or spending time with a supportive friend.

4. Try a little ‘experiment.’  I think it’s helpful when making behavioral changes to say it’s going to be just an ‘experiment’ for that week. This helps to zoom out from the big picture (i.e. prediction of future doom and gloom) which your ED loves to jump to when you are trying to make scary changes. I remember the first rest day that I took since my eating disorder began-vividly. At the time, I felt unable to take a day off from exercise and my dietitian had challenged me to take a rest day. I felt like I was crawling out of my skin-like I wanted to escape from the situation. I also felt intense guilt around eating. But the thing is, with support from my treatment team-I was able to do it. Even though the first time felt truly awful-it got easier and easier. Then, I was able to make other changes to help myself to find freedom from compulsively exercising.

Challenge yourself to shave 10 min off your routine, take a rest day, take a period off all-together (if you can)-whatever step feels like the best place to start. I promise, your body, mind, and soul will eventually thank you.

The Bottom Line:  Your obituary won’t read she was so dedicated to the treadmill, I remember her for her six-pack, and I appreciate that her legs were really toned. It will focus on your relationships, how you pursued your passions, the kind of person that you were, and the difference that you made in this world. I don’t want you to look back and regret moments and memories that slipped away or were colored by compulsive exercise. Full freedom from compulsive exercise is 100 percent possible and so worth it.