Exercise addiction is common among people with eating disorders. In fact, the prevalence of exercise addiction among individuals who have an eating disorder is 3.7 times greater than it is for people that don’t have an eating disorder. I have been recovered from exercise addiction and I’m sharing the 5 lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Falling into addiction goes unnoticed
Here’s why addictions are so dangerous – because we don’t notice when the line between healthy and damaging behaviors is crossed. Nobody starts an exercise routine or a diet thinking “Ok, from now on, this will control my life. I will sacrifice my health for it.” Neither can we point to a particular moment or event when we forget why we had started it and turn it into a self-destructive obsession. It sucks us in slowly. It gradually changes our thought patterns, our day-to-day choices and activities, and even our perception of ourselves.
I started dieting and working out after a bad breakup. I was heartbroken, lonely, desperate, and felt out of control over my life. For a couple of months, I spent most of my free time indulging in self-pity at home, so it was no surprise that I gained weight.
At one point, I decided it was time to move on and take care of myself.
So I started looking for online workouts and diets for losing weight and toning up. I had never worked out before in my life, so to discover what my body was capable of, to feel active and enjoy movement felt empowering and exciting. I lost the weight, felt a confidence boost, started enjoying the workouts, and joined a gym.
At first, workout routines and diets are usually going well. They start as something good that we want to do for ourselves. Why can’t we all just keep it that way?
Because sometimes the motivation behind this is wrong.
Lesson 2: Exercise and diet will not resolve our emotional issues
Moreover, they will worsen them and push them into the back of our subconsciousness – where they will silently grow stronger and take over everything we think and do.
Personally, instead of going through the whole process of recovering and working through my issues at the time, I turned to exercise and diet to distract myself and make myself feel in control. Setting and reaching fitness goals became an obsession because it provided me with what I craved on a deeper level – a sense of purpose and achievement.
It felt good in the beginning, but it was not long until every minute of my day became dedicated to food preparation and workout performance goals.
There is nothing wrong with starting a healthy exercise routine and diet. The problem is when you are doing it because you believe you are not good enough, or that it will help you forget about your problems.
Do you believe that once you achieve your target weight, size, or performance goals, you will feel happy and satisfied?
It’s one of the biggest lies. No, then you will just set another goal, and then another. It’s a spiral down and each next goal will be harder to achieve and demand more and more sacrifices.
The only way out of the spiral is to face the root issues that pushed you into it in the very beginning. This can mean going through the process of grieving a loss (of a loved one, a relationship, a job, an opportunity, etc.), adapting to significant life changes, getting professional support from a therapist, or joining a community of people who are dealing with the same problem.
Ignoring the issue, distracting yourself with something else, and bottling up your emotions are never the answer.
Lesson 3: Comparison and competition is a game everyone loses
Nowadays it’s easier than ever to compare every aspect of our lives, including our health, fitness, and appearance, to other people’s. It doesn’t even have to be their real appearance, achievements, or possessions – we all know perfectly well that what we see on social media is usually fake. We know the pictures are photoshopped, filtered, and taken from the “right” angle, and yet we strive to look like them. It is so deeply ingrained in our public culture that we always have to do more, better, and faster.
It appears like everyone on social media is a (self-proclaimed) star, model, life coach, entrepreneur, or fitness guru. This can make you feel like you are nobody.
You compare your real, human everyday self to people’s airbrushed online personas.
I sure used to. Instead of enjoying physical activity and having fun, I started comparing myself to everyone in my fitness communities. That included even professional and semi-professional athletes who were doing sports for decades. I had to hit their lifting records and look like them. I also had to be the best in the local gym and the Facebook groups I was in.
Of course, this is a competition that nobody can ever win.
There will always be someone who runs faster, lifts heavier, eats less, looks better – so your inner voice will keep comparing and telling you that you are not dedicated enough.
Lesson 4: Fitspiration and the “No Pain, No Gain” attitude are dangerous lies
Most of us are raised to believe in working hard for what we want. Quality education requires long hours of studying and research, for months and years in a row. A successful career requires hard work, mastering skills, and taking risks. A long-term relationship requires dedication from both partners.
So getting fit and healthy should also require hard work and dedication, right? What is wrong with this concept?
What is wrong is the definition of health and fitness that fitspo implies. Let’s see:
- You are not fit if you don’t have a visible 6-pack.
- You are not fit if you don’t feel completely drained and sore after a workout.
- You are not fit if you don’t improve your personal records every week.
- You are not fit if you don’t look absolutely lean, chiseled, cellulite-free and tanned in your tight neon gym outfit.
- Bonus: Just because you are about to spend 3+ hours sweating at the gym, exerting yourself to the point of fainting, doesn’t mean your hair and make-up can be anything less than perfect!
Yes, it is that absurd.
And I fell for all of it! I used to collect fitspo quotes and posts and I truly believed their messages. Why?
Because they all seemed to offer compensation for the root issues that I hadn’t resolved – the feelings of inadequacy and not being good enough.
Fitspo uses shame, guilt, and comparison and it can easily manipulate us if we already experience these emotions, consciously or not.
Lesson 5: Recovery is not just quitting a destructive behavior. It is a complete change in perspective and attitude
I spent about 6 sad, lonely years doing all that, which brought me nothing but ruined self-esteem and numerous health issues and injuries. Until one day I ended up with a permanent injury to my spine from lifting weights 6 days a week, 3+ hours a day. I had no other choice but to start my path to recovery.
If you can relate to this story, you sure don’t have to wait for an injury or a health problem to occur to know something is wrong and to take the first steps to recovery.
Here are some tips on how to start:
- First and foremost, stop weighing yourself, calculating body fat percentage, or taking and looking at before-after pictures and performance indicators!
- Unfollow all pages and profiles, and stop reading blogs and other online resources that promote fitspiration. If you have to, give yourself a break from social media for a while.
- Change your wardrobe and buy yourself some new outfits. This one may sound strange, but seeing yourself in something different will help.
I had seen myself in nothing but gym outfits and running shoes for more than 6 years. This was my identity and everything I related to. I donated all these clothes and replaced them with cute and colorful new dresses. It helped me see myself as someone who does other things than just throwing around barbells and hanging from iron bars. I am so much more than that!
- Ditch the toxic gym environment and community – both online and in person. You don’t owe an explanation to anyone. You are not “giving up”. You are making a life change for the better and this is entirely your choice.
- Get all the help you can find. Join a community of people, recovering from exercise addiction. See a specialist. Look for information and ask questions. Believe in your recovery. There is a way out, and there are abundant resources of help!
However, there is no such thing as “X easy steps or tips to recovery”. It is a long and complex process of reinventing yourself and changing your perspective on physical activity and food.
I had lots of trial-and-error experiences, moments of disappointment, and starting all over, but in time, I managed to establish a positive relationship with working out. I no longer think in terms of “beating my weakness”, and fighting against my body, but instead, I think in terms of working in harmony with it and understanding its signals.
I fell into this trap too. I used my Fitbit and would walk and walk as well as use my elliptical to the extreme. I ended up suffering from Achilles tendinitis and had to wear an ortho boot for months on one foot, then another.