Compulsive Exercise: When Your Workout is Not "Healthy"

Allyson Ford, LPCC 8880 on Oct 07, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

As a society, we are constantly fed messages about exercise always being a health-promoting behavior. We receive messages like “No rest days!” “No excuses!” “No pain, no gain!” But just how "healthy" is this? Furthermore, it can be really confusing when you start recovery and you are asked to stop exercising. You might be thinking: “But this is healthy for me!”

It’s true that exercise can be a healthy choice. But like any health-promoting behavior, it is dependent on the person and the context. There is no universal health. What is healthy for you may not be healthy for the next person. If you ate kale all day, every day (another seemingly "healthy" behavior), you would actually get thallium poisoning. If you are malnourished, which can happen at any size, exercise is not the healthy choice for you. If you have rigid and obsessive habits around exercise, taking a break is actually "healthier" for you. Health also encompasses the mind: your mental health. So if the thought of missing a workout floods you with anxiety, you miss out on important social events to exercise, or you continue to exercise even though your body has physical ailments (illness, injury), exercise is, in fact, hurting you, not helping you.

The other thing that people don’t often realize is that when you are exercising, your body is releasing the stress hormone cortisol. This means that no matter how stress-relieving your work out feels, it is actually cueing your body to be in a stressful state. This is another reason why taking a break and having rest days is actually very good for you. This especially becomes a problem for women who have lost their menstrual periods (and again, this can happen at any size). Often what I see is that as someone is waiting for their period to return after disordered eating or an eating disorder, they have to give up intense exercise for some time to allow their period to return. We know that stress (cortisol production) is a major trigger for amenorrhea (loss of your menstrual cycle), and so to get it back, many often have to minimize ALL triggers for stress — including exercise.

So here are some signs your relationship with movement has become disordered and compulsive:

You feel anxious or guilty at the thought of missing a workout

You consistently choose exercise over time with family and friends

You develop rigid rules around time, type, and frequency of exercise

You are hyper-focused on numbers (calories burned, time lapsed) instead of how the movement feels to your body

You continue exercising despite illness, injury, or extreme weather

You feel preoccupied with thoughts about how and when to exercise

You base your self-worth off of workouts completed

How is compulsive exercise treated?

The way I treat compulsive exercise is individualized. However, I generally use a combination of exposure therapy (ERP) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). With ERP, I help you gradually challenge your exercise rules to the point where you have less anxiety and distress and have increased flexibility around when and how you move your body. With ACT, I help you look at what your true values are vs. what your eating disorder’s values are. We then work together to help you cultivate a life that is reflective of your true self. 

Plenty of research shows that when we live our lives according to our true values (not society’s, not your parents, not your eating disorder’s), anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges naturally decrease. You start to feel more connected to yourself, happier, and more at peace. I’ve never met anyone whose true values are based on appearance or exercise. 

We will also look at how compulsive exercise was serving you and some alternative ways to get those needs met. Finally, after we have worked on all of these goals and if you are not malnourished, we may talk about ways to incorporate movement for joy in your life vs. movement for punishment. The goal is not to give up exercise forever; it’s to establish a truly healthy relationship with it, including for your mental health.

Recovery from compulsive exercise is 100% possible, and from someone who has been there myself, I can tell you I’m so much happier with joyful movement and flexibility with when and how I move my body. Often, I go weeks without any formal kind of workout, and I feel zero anxiety and guilt. I know I can trust my body, and I can help you trust yours too. Book a free consultation today, and let’s work together on your goals for more freedom and joy in your life — free from your eating disorder.

Allyson Ford is a Counselor in San diego, CA.

Recommended Articles