It can be difficult to spot a harmful relationship to exercise as our culture celebrates activities that are perceived to be contributing to our health and wellbeing.
Because of this, the more nuanced signs of exercise addiction or eating disorders can go overlooked. Over-exercising or an obsession with healthy or “clean” eating (also known as Orthorexia) may be perceived as someone simply trying to be “healthy”, when in fact they are pushing their body to the extreme or putting their relationships at risk in order to maintain a regimented lifestyle.
An exercise addiction may develop when someone is going through a particularly challenging time in life. Perhaps they are going through a transitional phase, with lots of change, or struggling with overwhelming thoughts or feelings, like anxiety or depression.
Within these moments, we may start to look outside of ourselves as a means of coping. Exercise is one such coping mechanism. Whilst it may look adaptive (helpful) on the outside, it may be covertly maladaptive (harmful) as it develops at the consequence of other areas of our lives.
If we’re unable to spot the intention beneath the activity, as well as how the activity may be negatively impacting other areas of a person’s life, important opportunities for intervention can be missed.
Signs that your relationship to exercise has become an addiction
Exercise has become the priority above anything else
Family, friends and socialising have taken a back seat to accommodate your overwhelming desire or need to exercise. Perhaps you’re missing out on social activities, or you’re consistently pushing back dates or meet up times in order to fit in exercise.
You feel an intense guilt for not exercising
The guilt might feel intolerable and you may ruminate on how you’ll be able to make up for whatever time you’ve missed not exercising.
You exercise despite feeling exhausted or despite injuries
You don’t take rest days as much as you need to. Your body might be telling you that it’s fatigued and too tired to work out, but you ignore the signs and power through regardless. Equally you may push on through injuries, not allowing enough time yourself to acknowledge the injury maybe by compensating with different activities as a means of ignoring the issue due to a fear of what stopping means.
Your sense of self-worth is derived through exercise
Exercise is the one thing that makes you feel good about yourself. Often, people who suffer with an addiction to exercise struggle with low self-esteem or self-worth, which is masked by the euphoric (but fleeting) sense of achievement when exercising.
You use exercise to compensate for eating/drinking
You might be hyper-aware of the food you eat and its nutritional content, and use exercise as a means of “purging” what you consume.
What you can do to help yourself
Clock the intention behind the activity
Underneath the compulsion to over-exercise may be an intent to self-soothe. In this case, exercise might serve to distract our attention or numb our feelings towards something. When you feel the urge to exercise, pause and take a moment to explore what might be at the root of your need to exercise.
Explore the intention with compassionate curiosity
Perhaps you’ll find a sense of anxiety, sadness or loss at the root. With compassion, gently explore why this emotion might becoming up for you. Perhaps it’s been triggered by an experience at work that’s made you feel ‘not good enough’, or a friend whose behaviour is making you question the security of the relationship. If possible, avoid any judgement during this process.
Find alternative ways of self-soothing
Now that you have a broader understanding of your relationship to exercise, take a moment to consider other self-soothing activities that are kinder to your mind and body. Perhaps journaling or meditating can be an alternative expression. If movement really does help, perhaps opt for something gentle like yoga or stretching.
Talk to someone you trust
Leaning into the support of someone you trust can help hold you accountable to your goals. Let them know that you’re starting to reflect on your relationship to exercise and that you might need their support in navigating this journey.
Reach out for specialist help
Self-reflection might illuminate some difficult truths that are hard to grapple with by yourself. If this is the case, go gently and reach out to a specialist psychotherapist or psychologist for specialist support.