In our society, people want to be addicted to exercise. When someone exercises regularly, we praise them. We envy them. We idolize their commitment and dedication. We wonder, in awe, how do they do it? How are they so motivated? How do they get up so early, especially when it’s so cold? What are their tricks? What exactly do they do to look like that?
In our society, exercise is seen as virtuous. We drool over photos on social media. We devour articles with the latest tips. Which is why when you have a problem—when you’re compulsively exercising—it can be hard to spot and to stop.
When Jennifer Rollin was compulsively exercising, she felt like she couldn’t rest for even one day. If she did actually rest for a single day, she’d feel an overwhelming sense of guilt.
“My morning revolved around making sure that I was able to fit in my rigid workout,” Rollin said. “If I didn’t exercise, I had a hard time eating adequately because I believed that I ‘did not deserve to eat if I hadn’t exercised.’ I felt completely trapped by compulsive exercise.”
“I exercised while I was ill, when my body hurt, and would wake up at the crack of dawn to ensure that I could fit in my exercise routine if I had an early commitment. I spent the majority of my time thinking about exercise, food, and my body.”
Today, Rollin is completely recovered. She’s the founder and director of the The Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland, where she specializes in working with teens and adults with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and depression.
Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, regularly sees clients who struggle with compulsive exercise, and she believes compulsive exercise is on the rise.
Warning Signs of Compulsive Exercise
Rollin shared the below signs that you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise:
- you feel like you no longer have a choice in exercising
- you exercise even when you’re ill or injured
- you feel incredibly anxious or guilty if your exercise routine is disrupted
- you feel incredibly anxious or guilty for revising your exercise routine or taking a rest day
- you skip social events to exercise
- you use exercise to compensate for something you ate
- you use exercise as your only coping strategy to reduce anxiety and regulate other emotions
Kristie Amadio, the founder and director of Recovered Living, worked with a client who had been exercising compulsively for years in order to stabilize her mood. Then this client moved from a warm state to a cold state. When she was snowed in and had no means of exercise, she realized that she had a problem.
When to Seek Help
According to Rollin, if you’re questioning whether you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, it’s time to seek professional help.
Amadio, who also struggled with compulsive exercise for years, knew it was time to seek help when she felt an “‘uneasiness’ in my soul.”
“Deep down I knew I didn’t always enjoy exercising—even though I pretended to. Sometimes when I was riding my bicycle to work or hiking in the woods, I would feel thoroughly depressed at the thought of having to do this for the rest of my life, but extremely anxious at the thought of not doing it.”
Like Rollin, Amadio felt trapped.
Fortunately, today, she’s “no longer a prisoner. I am completely free.”
The key is to see a therapist with expertise in compulsive exercise who works from a Health At Every Size perspective, Rollin said. Many people also might find it helpful to work with someone who has personally recovered from exercise compulsion, she said.
“The recovery process from compulsive exercise was incredibly anxiety provoking for me at first,” Rollin said. In the beginning, she felt like jumping out of her skin.
Thankfully, the more she challenged herself, the easier it became. She began by taking one rest day a week. Then she reduced the time she spent exercising. Then she switched up the types of exercise she did.
“I had to keep challenging the rules that I had around exercise, and eventually realized that I actually didn’t even enjoy intense activity. Now, I don’t feel an obligation to move if I don’t want to—and my preferred form of movement is taking a walk.”
“Being on the other side is so freeing,” Rollin said. “To be able to do movement that I enjoy and to have plenty of days where I don’t do any movement is something that I truly never thought would be possible.”
And, with treatment, the same is absolutely possible for you, too.
Stay tuned this weekend for a second piece on what you can do to reduce compulsive exercise (in addition to seeking professional help).