Can someone who practices regular exercise be struggling with their relationship with movement? Based on the messages of diet culture, exercising can be promoted as something we “should” be doing in order to attain a specific, yet unrealistic body aesthetic, or as a way to compensate for eating “bad” foods. How does this message impact our relationship with exercise and food?
Let’s start with a story we come across often in our clinic. For anonymity purposes, we’ll name the client Anika.
Anika has always been an active person. She was part of a soccer team in high school and had always enjoyed challenging herself through movement. During college, she became more active. She started running, swimming and weight training, with the primary goal of burning calories so she could lose weight. At that point, she even started declining invitations to go out with friends, as she was concerned with missing a workout. There eventually came a moment when she had a hard time taking a rest day, as she would feel guilty for not burning “enough” calories that day. She found herself exercising as a way to compensate for eating certain foods. What was once enjoyable quickly felt like an obligation. Anika felt stuck and exhausted. How could she find her way back to enjoying exercise again?
Compulsive Exercise and Disordered Eating
Compulsive exercise, also known as exercise addiction, is when an individual exercises excessively, regardless of injury, weather, illness and at the expense of spending time with friends or loved ones (1). Those who exercise compulsively may engage in physical activity despite being ill, injured or exhausted. There is often a craving for physical training and an inability to skip a workout.
Those who develop a difficult relationship with food, or disordered eating, are more likely to engage in compulsive exercise. They may see exercise as a way to compensate for eating “bad” foods or for eating “too much”. The desire to achieve a certain appearance, modify or control one’s body weight, size or shape can initiate or further push an individual to develop disordered eating and/or compulsive exercising.
Disordered eating can involve some form of food restriction. This can cause those that are engaging in regular exercise to be under-fueled. Being undernourished can make it extremely difficult to sustain regular exercise and further puts individuals at risk of physical, social and mental consequences. These can include illness, injury, loss of menstruation, social isolation, depression and anxiety (2).
So, how can this show up in one’s life? What are some signs and symptoms that help identify compulsive exercise behaviours?
6 Signs of a Disordered Relationship with Exercise
- You no longer look forward to exercising. It feels like an obligation and is rigid.
- You feel preoccupied with how not exercising might impact your weight. You may also feel anxious about your body size or shape.
- You use exercise as a way to compensate for eating certain foods or certain quantities of food.
- What you can allow yourself to eat is determined by how much you exercise.
- You feel exhausted, despite sleeping 7-9 hours per night.
- Your workout schedule is the most important part of your schedule. You skip seeing friends or family, and you abandon other activities and responsibilities, to make sure you get a workout in.
This list is not exhaustive and there are other signs that one may have a disordered relationship with exercise. These are the ones that come up most often when working with clients. Knowing this information is helpful to build an awareness and understanding of your relationship with exercise.
So, what are the next steps?
How to Start Developing a Flexible Relationship with Exercise
Schedule rest days
If you’re compulsively exercising, think about adding in rest days. If you have hard workouts, take a day off to rest in between workouts. This is beneficial to help your muscles recover in between workouts in order to optimize your performance.
Decrease the frequency of your workouts
This might be a reduction in the number of days per week or the number of minutes per workout. In doing so, think about how it makes you feel. Are you enjoying your workouts more? Do you feel more energized throughout? Is there less pressure to workout overall?
Treat your injuries
Visit a qualified professional to get the support you need in order to recover and heal from your injuries. Overuse can further aggravate your injuries and make the healing process longer and more challenging.
Practicing Intuitive Exercise
As you begin to rethink your relationship with exercise, you might want to become more attuned to what your body really needs. Intuitive exercise provides a framework for how one can tune into what their body needs and choose a type of exercise accordingly. Stay tuned for next month’s blog post which will discuss Intuitive Exercise in more detail!
Schedule Relaxation and Fun Outside Activities
Plan for activities that are unrelated to movement that may help with your overall recovery and well-being. Examples of this may be reading a good book, watching a TV show while lying on the couch, meeting a friend for coffee or taking a bath.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise and food is essential to taking care of yourself and respecting your body’s needs. If Anika’s story resonated with you and you feel like you may be struggling with your relationship with exercise or food, please reach out to our team to see how we can help. You can contact us at 514-437-4260 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Jessica Francis, Registered Dietitian, in collaboration with Registered Dietitian Vanessa Anoia
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Sööma is a bilingual company that operates in both English and in French. We will provide blog posts, recipes and articles from various sources that are sometimes written in English and sometimes in French. If you feel unable to access a specific article or topic due to a language barrier, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to translate the content for you.
- John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. (2023). Compulsive Exercise. Retrieved at: https://www.hopkinsallchildrens.org/Patients-Families/Health-Library/HealthDocNew/Compulsive-Exercise
- Lichtenstein, M. B., Hinze, C. J., Emborg, B., Thomsen, F., & Hemmingsen, S. D. (2017). Compulsive exercise: links, risks and challenges faced. Psychology research and behavior management, 10, 85–95. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S113093
- Happy Hour with Gretchen Geraghty – Overcoming an Unhealthy Relationship with Exercise + Fear of Weight Gain – https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/overcoming-an-unhealthy-relationship-with-exercise/id1483491132?i=1000567644305
- Intuitive Eating – A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyne Tribole and Elyse Resch