Swapping one obsession for another- the dangers of obsessive exercise in recovery
‘I swapped one form of control for another, exercise became my way to suppress emotions, to sculpt my body, it prevented me from reaching full recovery.’
If you scroll through social media, or read recovery stories about anorexia online, you might see a storyline like this: ‘I chose to recover, I found freedom by focusing on exercise, going to the gym changed my outlook, I found my passion for fitness.’ Such stories may be accompanied by an image of a female dictated by diet culture as acceptable: the woman with the toned, flawless body.
I was diagnosed with anorexia at age 12 and spent 17 years battling my eating disorder. During recovery I fell into this fitness trap. My passion for sport became clouded in obsessions. I was unable to run due to a diagnosis of severe osteoporosis, however I became fixated on going to the gym every day, striving to obtain a physique that would help me to feel good enough, one that would fit with the toned athletic body. Obsession over my body in the mirrors at the gym, always identifying with body parts I was unhappy with, as if my body was the most interesting thing about me. I wanted my body to be perfect. I was unable to miss a gym session, I would avoid social occasions to ensure I could commit to the exercise regime I had implemented, I isolated myself and tried to convince this made me happy, where inside I was hurting. Only now as I work on the final stages of recovery can I understand how this obsession kept me trapped in my eating disorder. I had been swapping one unhealthy form of control for another.
To begin to appreciate why ‘the fitness lifestyle’ during recovery from an eating disorder is problematic I first needed to understand what ‘recovered’ from an eating disorder means. Full recovery means complete freedom, it means a healthy relationship with all foods, not trying to manipulate your body through food or exercise. It means you do not need to control your life by creating rules around food and exercise, it means to be able to eat when you want to eat and stop when you want to stop, to exercise when you want to and not when you are tired. Recovery means making the decisions you want to make for you, your health and your happiness, not to fulfil the needs of the rules created by an eating disorder. In full recovery people can pursue passions, have relationships, engage in hobbies they love and enjoy life for the wonderful gift it is, without food and body image issues overruling this.
What fuels eating disorders? At the core they are not about food. Eating disorders are a way to (mistakenly) feel in control in a world where we are in constant need and searching for perfection, where we seek external validation. We are deemed successful if we achieve. For those of us who present with low self-esteem and low self-worth this need to achieve and strive for perfection comes with increased anxiety and stress, leading us to push ourselves even harder, believing we are not good enough just as we are (Bardone et al., 2017). Emotions that may arise such as hurt, loss, pain, sadness, unworthiness, fear, hate, failure can become all too consuming. Instead of facing these emotions we search for others ways to suppress them (Schaumberg., et al., 2017).
Using food and exercise was a way for me to suppress and avoid these uncomfortable emotions. My eating disorder was essentially my coping mechanism. However, no matter what coping mechanism we use to numb these emotions it will always be temporary; the emotions will come back. The answer will never be found through food and exercise. The underlying emotional issues must be addressed for true recovery to take place, including addressing these deep emotions and beliefs we have about ourselves. In addressing my low self-worth, I need to stop trying to package my life into self-imposed ‘perfection standards’, as experienced by many people who experience eating disorders (Steindl et al., 2017).
During my recovery I fell into the more sociably acceptable obsession with fitness and exercise. In the early days of my recovery, I said, “I don’t mind gaining weight as long as it is muscle, as long as I look toned and have the ‘fitness’ body.” Looking back, I can see how this was heavily influenced by diet culture. I needed to ‘look’ a certain way to be ‘good enough’ to be ‘liked’, to be ‘accepted’. This was further cemented when I scrolled through Instagram to see countless accounts of women sharing pictures of their ‘body progress pictures’, ‘endless workout posts’ and ‘picture perfect meals’.
I merged food restriction and exercise to burn off calories into exercise obsessions to sculpt my body, and rigid rules about only consuming ‘healthy’ food. Essentially, I replaced one form of control for another. Appearing recovered using this form of control was easy, because it was socially acceptable. In our society fuelled by diet culture, unsurprisingly, many people in recovery from an eating disorder fall into what is now defined as ‘orthorexia’; an obsession with eating foods that one deems healthy, often combined with engaging in obsessive exercise regimes (Costa et al., 2017)
Being obsessed with physique, body image and getting fixated on exercise regimes will never lead to full recovery. It prevents complete food and exercise freedom; it prevents spontaneity around eating when and what you want and exercising when and how you want. But ‘fitness’ is praised in culture and therefore it is an easy way for someone to maintain an eating disorder without appearing sick. During my recovery I felt the need to exercise every day and if I didn’t I felt I could not eat as much as I normally would, I felt guilty if I did not exercise, and even on a rest day I would have to do yoga or swimming or something. My behaviours of engaging in compulsive exercise however are not uncommon in those with eating disorders (Dittmer et al., 2018).
Yet these behaviours were not considered abnormal. We are consistently reminded that movement is good for our health and longevity and I do not doubt this statement, but it is the motivation behind that movement that matters. Are we exercising because we feel we have too, is it coming from an eating disorder mindset or one of a healthy and flexible mindset? From my experience, trying to convince ourselves and others that we are exercising for ‘healthy’ reasons, can come undone when we cannot continue our normal exercise regime (due to injury, illness, appointments, events or holidays) and anxiety and panic ensue. This is a clear warning sign that exercise is being used as a coping strategy, and that there is still a way to go to reach full recovery and freedom from your eating disorder.
I am now working on rediscovering my love for moving my body because it feels good, rather than focusing on my appearance. I have found moving my body in nature where I feel free has helped me to rediscover this love as I focus more on mindful movement. Two of my favourite forms of exercise today are ocean swimming and yoga in the park, both of which make me feel alive, I am able to enjoy the exercise for how it makes me feel rather than how it makes me look.
Some indicators of excessive exercise
People in recovery from and eating disorder or who have experienced an eating disorder are at an increased risk to developing issues with exercise. Some symptoms to watch out for include:
- Unable to miss a workout even if injured or ill.
- Refuse to take rest days or rest on a day when you are just feeling a little tired and want to rest (the key word there is WANT, because it should be a choice).
- Getting anxious and agitated if you can’t exercise.
- Have strict and inflexible exercise routines.
- Skipping social occasions or other commitments (such as appointments, work, family events) to exercise.
- Using food as a reward for exercise and restricting your food intake if you can’t exercise.
- Exercise begins to take priority in life.
- You become obsessed with appearance — body shape, size and/or definition.
I would like to share this piece I wrote during my recovery as I became more obsessed with my body image and exercise:
You were born as a miracle, starting as a single cell, growing into the incredible human being you are today. Just think, how incredible it is that your body grew and developed. How did it know how to arrange itself in such a way, putting your head on top of your body, holding your brain and your beautiful smile? How did your left side of your body arrange itself to mirror the right? How incredible that your heart continues to beat every day, pumping blood around your body keeping you alive. How incredible that your wounds always heal without any conscious effort, your hair grows, your eyes to see, your ears to hear. Yet you have looked at this amazing gift, your home with disappointment because the world conditioned you to believe that your magical body is not good enough. Your body is not an ornament or object for you or others to judge, admire or reject. Your shape, size and appearance is not a trend, you were not put on this earth to waste all of your energy moulding and shaping your body. You do not need to look ‘out’ for other people’s approval, when you can look inside to find your own approval. Allow yourself to be who you are with no apologies. To achieve full recovery, the freedom you deserve, you need to learn to accept you are good enough, you need to let go of the rules you have around food and exercise, the beliefs you hold about your body and your worth. Your body has shown you so much love, being your forever home, it is time to give your body the love it deserves.
While I am still on a journey to reach full recovery, I believe full recovery is possible, because I have seen others achieve complete freedom around food, body and exercise. Remember if you are struggling with a fitness and exercise obsession, you are not alone, especially as we live in a culture praising exercise, ‘black and white’ thinking around foods as being healthy or unhealthy. If exercise is becoming dominant in your life, reach out for help and support. Staying stuck in the ‘fitness obsessed lifestyle’ will prevent you from achieving full recovery.
I want health and happiness more than a sculpted body. I am open and transparent that I have not reached this place yet, but the intention and desire is there, and this is the first step. Life is more than obsessing with food and exercise. I ask myself, ‘Do I want to look back on my life in years to come and wish I had gone on more world adventures instead of adhering to gym rules, wishing I had enjoyed the real birthday cake instead of making some ‘refined sugar free protein ball’? I want to live my life and I refuse to let my ED or anyone try to tell me otherwise. We each deserve a fulfilled and free life, where we can shout at the top of our voice ‘I AM RECOVERED’.
Bardone-Cone, A.M., Lin, S.L. and Butler, R.M., 2017. Perfectionism and contingent self-worth in relation to disordered eating and anxiety. Behavior therapy, 48(3), pp.380-390.
Costa, C.B., Hardan-Khalil, K. and Gibbs, K., 2017. Orthorexia nervosa: a review of the literature. Issues in mental health nursing, 38(12), pp.980-988.
Dittmer, N., Jacobi, C. and Voderholzer, U., 2018. Compulsive exercise in eating disorders: proposal for a definition and a clinical assessment. Journal of eating disorders, 6(1), p.42.
Lichtenstein, M.B. and Hinze, C.J., 2020. Exercise addiction. In Adolescent Addiction (pp. 265-288). Academic Press.
Schaumberg, K., Welch, E., Breithaupt, L., Hübel, C., Baker, J.H., Munn‐Chernoff, M.A., Yilmaz, Z., Ehrlich, S., Mustelin, L., Ghaderi, A. and Hardaway, A.J., 2017. The science behind the Academy for Eating Disorders’ nine truths about eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 25(6), pp.432-450.
Steindl, S.R., Buchanan, K., Goss, K. and Allan, S., 2017. Compassion focused therapy for eating disorders: A qualitative review and recommendations for further applications. Clinical Psychologist, 21(2), pp.62-73.