When you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, you feel like you can’t stop running or boxing or lifting weights. You feel guilty or anxious when you rest (if you even rest). You skip events with friends and family so you can exercise. You don’t really have any other hobbies besides going to the gym. You exercise when you’re sick, and when you’re tired, and when you’re sore, and when you’re in pain.
You exercise all the time.
Thankfully, you don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to struggle with compulsive exercise. You can get better, both with professional support and on your own. When looking for professional help, search for a therapist with expertise in compulsive exercise who works from a Health At Every Size perspective.
“Professional help is absolutely part of the recovery process but there is so much you can do on your own to help yourself heal,” said Kristie Amadio, the founder and director of Recovered Living, which offers specialized eating disorder recovery coaching services to complement outpatient eating disorder treatment. Amadio struggled with compulsive exercise for a long time, but has been fully recovered.
Below, you’ll find seven powerful strategies you can try on your own.
- Become self-aware. “[N]otice the thoughts and stories that you are telling yourself surrounding exercise,” said Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, founder and director of the The Eating Disorder Center, which offers therapy to teens and adults struggling with eating disorders and body image issues, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. Rollin, too, has fully recovered from compulsive exercise. Maybe you tell yourself that a workout doesn’t count unless you sweat. Maybe you exercise even harder to burn off a bagel or dessert. Maybe you think resting is synonymous with weakness. Maybe you think you need to work out six days a week. You can take this assessment to take a closer look at your relationship with exercise.
- Challenge exercise rules. Rollin suggested making a list of any exercise “rules” you believe you must follow, such as: “I always exercise for ___ amount of time,” or “I only take one rest day per week.” Then start challenging these rules in “small and manageable steps.” You might rest for two days during the week. You might take a gentle yoga class instead of running. You might exercise for 50 minutes instead of a full hour. As you start challenging and breaking these rules, you might feel intense discomfort or distress, Rollin said. “[I]t’s important to remind yourself that this distress is only temporary. The more that you can challenge any exercise rules, the easier this will become over time.” The ultimate goal, she said, is to find forms of movement that you genuinely enjoy, and to focus on variety and flexibility.
- Come up with sincerely healthy coping statements. Rollin shared these examples: “I deserve to eat and nourish my body, no matter how much I have exercised today,” or “The amount that I exercise does not define my worth as a person.” Put these statements in your phone, or anywhere else that’s easily accessible or visible. Such reminders are so important.
- Engage in other coping strategies. “Sometimes using movement to relieve anxiety makes sense, however, the problem occurs when this is someone’s primary way to cope with their emotions,” Rollin said. She sometimes asks clients this question: “When you think about exercising, what emotion are you looking to feel?” Then they find other strategies to spark this feeling. She shared this example: If clients want to feel calm, they explore options besides exercise that might trigger a sense of calm—such as meditating, coloring, journaling, getting a massage or talking with someone they trust. Rollin also asks clients what else they’re trying to distract themselves from or numb out from by exercising. “Then, we can actually address this issue—rather than putting a temporary ‘band-aid’ on a gaping wound.”
- Build a supportive social circle. Often when you’re exercising compulsively, your entire social circle consists of people you spend a lot of time with, like fellow gym-goers, runners, cyclists, Amadio said. “It is very difficult to change a behavior when your social circle is tied to it. This may take some time but will help immeasurably.” Consider broadening your social circle to other like-minded people. Consider checking out places like book clubs, charities, church or synagogue, and classes based on hobbies you’d like to try out.
- Surround yourself with supportive messages. Amadio suggested cleaning out your social media. “Subscribe to people or organizations that fit with the values you want to embody. Direct your attention to the size of your life rather than the shape of your body.”
- Cultivate new hobbies. “If you created a pie chart of how you spend your time in a week, how much of your life is taken up with exercise?” Amadio said. Consider “experimenting with different non-exercise activities to see what you enjoy.” This might be anything from painting to writing to decorating to photography. Explore what inspires and uplifts you. Explore what fascinates you. What are you curious about?
Exercise isn’t meant to be punishing. It’s not meant to be some boring chore. It’s not meant to be a source of guilt or shame or anxiety or sadness. And the great thing is that if these are the very ways you’re viewing exercise right now, you can change.