When is Exercise Considered Compulsive? (January 2019)
Often times, when we hear the word “exercise,” we think of a chore or something that we “have to do.” When I speak about exercise, I like to refer it as “joyful movement” or “intuitive movement” as this feels spontaneous, more relaxed, and, possibly, fun!
I see many clients who struggle with what is known as “compulsive exercise.” To me, compulsive exercise is when a person has a “need” to move daily or multiple times per day.
Now, you may think: “isn’t this a habit that is effective?” Let me clarify, if we move because we find it is a great stress release, stretches out our body, and we like how we feel it is a positive decision. So far, I have not had a client share with me that they exercise for the reasons above, and they certainly never describe being calm and relaxed about it.
Sadly, I see clients that have the need to move multiple times per day, schedule their days around exercise, will not eat at all, or will not eat certain foods depending on how much they exercise, if they do at all.
Compulsive exercise can also be used as a way to “remove” various foods from our body due to the guilt or shame that an individual experiences. This is often referred to as “exercise bulimia,” with the aggressive workouts being how the individual purges what they have eaten. In this case, the individual may experience anxiety if they do not work out after eating a certain food.
This is also often accompanied with the belief that the workouts must be high intensity, strenuous or high intensity interval training (HIIT). The individual does not believe in days off and often becomes irritable if the workout does not happen due to other obligations coming up.
There are certainly mood changes, such as depression or anger with significant changes in attitude, if the workout does not happen. There is more focus on the food choice based on the amount of activity and many perceive this is their gateway to happiness. For example, an individual may restrict what they eat on an evening where their workout is interrupted, thinking this makes up for the loss of the workout.
Other types of eating disorders can evolve as a byproduct of “exercise bulimia,” as the individual is fixated only on movement.
We all know that happiness is an inside job, and that it will not result from compulsive exercise. Instead, learn how to step back from exercise that is compulsive or takes you away from your values.
There is nothing wrong with taking several days per week off from your movement as this will allow your body to rest, recover and come back stronger the next time you choose to move it.
By the way, attending yoga or going on a walk does not count as a “day off” of exercise!
Doing nothing is a rest day and that doing nothing is important. Your body will thank you for the self-care that you give it.