Obsessed with Exercise?(How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Your Body and Movement)
Exercise is healthy. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
The measurable and well-studied benefits of regular exercise are many: strengthening our bones, improving our cardiovascular systems, increasing our muscular strength and endurance, reducing risks of cancer, stroke, and other diseases, boosting our immune systems, and alleviating mental stress and anxiety.
If exercise is so darn good for you, the more the better, right?
Not quite. Just like many things in life, there comes a point when too much takes a negative toll on a person, on the body as well as the mind.
That is why exercise is so much more than the types and amount of movement that you do.
A healthy relationship to exercise is largely determined by your mindset towards it, and in turn, your relationship to your physical body, and ultimately, to yourself.
When Exercise Becomes an Addiction
I am somebody who for a longtime did NOT have a healthy relationship with exercise. I was fit, and athletic, and often praised for my discipline and the physique it got me.
However, I did not exercise from a place of joy or pure desire to move — I exercised to appease the voices in my head, to punish myself, to compensate or negate calories, to meet a time or distance or other number goal, or even to just match the movement I had done the previous day. Exercise was compulsive, obsessive, or excessive, and sometimes all of these at once.
Movement should be enjoyable and intuitive. And coming at it from a place of self-loathing and shame made that relationship impossible.
For the many years I was anorexic, exercise was my purge. I didn’t throw up, but I ran until I felt like I would. I had just as many rules around burning calories as I had around consuming them. A day off the gym or a workout cut ten minutes early erupted in unrelenting anxiety and guilt that would only ebb after overcompensating with my exercise the next day. Fasted cardio was my drug of choice. It was an adrenaline high, that I for so long mistook for enjoyment. Now I realize it was simply my cortisol sky-rocketing, since I had no other energy form to power me through those workouts.
After years of unhealthy, obsessive exercise, and a break from exercise altogether, I can now truly say that never again do I want to wake up feeling chained to any “should” or “must” or “have-to” or other arbitrary rule.
I am in no way against exercise. And for most people, of course exercise is important for health. I genuinely love being active — not chained-to-an-elliptical-active- but active as in moving my body in ways that feel intuitive and respectful of its strengths and its limits.
These past few months, yoga, and other forms of movement have become very much part of my morning routine. I was loving it, starting the day a little bit sweaty and a little more fluid, and I was thriving. Wake up, make a cup of tea, write in my journal, meditate, and then ease into a sweet and slow flow to my very eclectic yoga playlist. Then I would lie on my mat or the grass or wherever I was in shavasana-bliss for however long before ambling into the kitchen for breakfast. It was great. Until it wasn’t.
Resetting my Relationship with Exercise
It was a few weeks ago I suppose that I started to notice an odd, uncomfortably familiar feeling of anxiety upon waking up. I would lie in bed, feeling slightly paralyzed by a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. It was hard to get up. I would feel guilty staying in bed, lazing this early part of the day away, but I also didn’t want to do the thing that my brain was now telling me that I had no choice but to do — yoga.
You may snort at this. Y-o-g-a. The most gentle, healing, restorative, spiritual, safe form of movement there supposedly is. And yet here I was, feeling the same compulsive anxiety towards yoga that I used to feel before fasted HIIT cardio. Just leave it to anyone with a history of anorexia to turn yoga into an exercise obsession. I have nothing against yoga or hiit cardio for that matter. But I do take issue with doing any form of movement from a place of fear or inadequacy.
I don’t think it is ever a good thing to drag yourself to do any form of exercise for the sake of avoiding the anxiety or negative feelings that will come from not doing it. And I know this is very counter- intuitive for a lot of people.
In fitness and athletic culture, the mantra is often that there is “no such thing as doing too much.” Fitspo accounts are filled with posts and messages like “Go Big or Go Home”, “the only bad workout is the one you didn’t do”, and “push until it breaks you.” The prevalence and pervasiveness of these messages has effectively normalized their extremeness.
We start to believe that in order for exercise to “count”, we need to be begging for mercy by the end of it. And realistically, what human being would wake up every day genuinely looking forward to that? And yet, many of us continue to commit to gruelling fitness regimes and daily workouts when we have no desire to do so other than to get it done.
Even you reading this right now might be wondering why anyone would bother exercising if they only did it when they “felt like it.” I thought the same way. After years of pushing myself, never ending a run until a certain number of kilometers or ending a workout until I had burned a certain number of calories, exercising through injury, in extreme heat, in pouring rain, rescheduling and cancelling on friends and events to not miss a workout, I thought there was no other way to think.
None of it felt good. Exercise never felt good. But not doing it, missing that workout, felt unbearable.
It’s taken me a long time to get where I am now with my relationship to exercise.
It took giving up running when I started recovery, and only beginning to test out running again now, three years later.
It took cancelling gym memberships, and attending yoga classes, and going for walks with other people so that I wasn’t tempted to run while on them.
It took deleting step-count apps and calorie counters, and walking away from conversations that made me feel triggered about my “break” from exercise and loss of identity as a runner.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error since then as well.
On many occasions, I’ve convinced myself I’ve had long enough a break, and I was ready to start adding in more exercise. I’d try going for a couple runs, do a workout at a hotel gym, get a yoga membership, only to be sucked back in and feeling chained to whatever form of movement I was experimenting with.
Slowly, the compulsiveness has lessened. I can do occasional yoga and other movement classes now without feeling like I need to sign my life away with a membership. I can go for a long walk and spontaneously have it turn into a run without (usually) feeling like I need to run it the next day.
This year, I found my way to pole, a passion that had allowed me to develop a new relationship towards movement and my body, working towards goals that have nothing to do with numbers or aesthetics, but requiring strength and flexibility.
I haven’t been able to do it since the studios across the province closed back in March, and I’ve been missing it like crazy.
However, being forced to take this time off has allowed me to see all the ways in which my mindset has shifted, as well as some of the places where I still have some thoughts to rewire.
Especially this past month, and the stuckness I was feeling with the whole morning yoga habit.
I’ve made great strides, and I am proud of how far I have come. But I am aware that I still have a tendency (and likely always will to some degree) to fall into patterns of obsession and compulsion when it comes to exercise.
However, what I have learned in these years of recovery is the ability to recognize and identify these patterns before they take over.
I love yoga. I want to be able to get out of bed every morning, jump onto my mat, and do a vigorous vinyasa practice if that’s what I feel like.
I want to be able to go for a long sweaty run in the evening to my favourite playlist.
I want to join my friends in trying out a new bootcamp class or do a tough mudder or group triathlon.
But I also want to be able to wake up, roll out of bed, and do whatever I feel like that is NOT exercise. Or have my morning movement be a walk to the park barefoot with my dog instead of pounding the pavement with my runners.
I want to have the choice. I want the freedom to move. I want exercise to be a want and NEVER a should.
And that is why I took this week off movement — to prove to myself that I can not exercise for a week and that nothing bad happens. I’m three days in, and to be honest, I woke up this morning and I wanted to flow. I had that feeling of desire to move, and NOT compulsion. But, I made myself tea, and sat myself down outside to write anyways.
Next week, I can do all the yoga I want (or not!). But this week, I am committed to the goal of rewiring my brain about exercise and movement of all kinds, even yoga.
As the saying goes “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
How will I feel when this week is over? Hopefully better than I did going in. l will write more about my week off and what happened in my next post.
In the meantime, I’ll just be here, sipping my tea, doing my best to throw myself into every other passion and project of mine that is not movement. How’s your relationship with exercise?
Sometimes It’s a good idea to not just ask what you are doing, but how you feel about it.
There are so many more pivotal and pressing things happening in our world right now than the exercise you did or did not do.
You can read more about my relationship with exercise and my recovery on www.dayslikeblankpages.com