Exercise is often considered a panacea in both the treatment and prevention of physical and psychological concerns. Whether you want to improve your cardiovascular health or reduce your symptoms of depression, exercise is among the list of natural antidotes suggested. Such movement in various forms is also used to increase strength, endurance, and stamina to contribute to the individual’s overall feeling of health. Thus, there appears to be a general societal consensus that exercise should be a regular part of one’s life. So what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, while exercise can help cultivate physical and mental well-being, a significant function of exercise for many people is to assist in changing their body weight, shape, and size. Countless gyms and fitness programs provide workouts with the promise of a “summer body” or a regime to help you lose your “holiday weight.” In today’s culture, exercise appears to be emphasized as a path towards weight loss and achievement of a certain body ideal. While every person is on their own path and chooses exercise to meet particular goals – whether to enhance their appearance, strength, or overall health – a dysfunctional relationship with exercise can be both physically and psychologically dangerous.
How Can Exercise Become Unhealthy?
Regardless of the health benefits of exercise, too much of it can signify a struggle with disordered eating. Many individuals with eating disorders and/or body image concerns exhibit an unhealthy relationship with exercise. In fact, the term “exercise bulimia” is often used to describe individuals who use exercise as a way to “purge” calories or food consumed, in the same way someone might use self-induced vomiting or laxatives to compensate for eating. In such cases, exercise may become a compulsion or obligation that must be fulfilled at any cost, whether the individual wants a certain body appearance to feel more attractive, or achieve a particular body type to become a better athlete. Exercise may also be used to an extreme as a coping skill to escape emotions or achieve a temporary high.
How Would I Know?
Since exercise is also a health-promoting activity, there may be challenges in determining whether you are utilizing it in an unhealthy or dangerous way. Here are some points to consider in evaluating your relationship with exercise:
Consider how much time, energy, and effort you are putting into exercise compared to other areas of your life. Does exercise take up a largely disproportionate amount of your time, energy, and efforts? You may find that you prioritize exercise over other important areas of your life that still need your attention – your family, social life, career, hobbies, and even other aspects of your health. Think about the lengths you will go to partake in exercise. Does feeling sick or being injured make you reconsider, or do you still feel obligated to go? Think about whether exercise is something you feel compelled to do, rather than something you actually want to do.
Think of how exercise is actually affecting you. After reading the last point, you may be thinking that for some people, exercise is naturally part of their career (i.e. for a professional athlete). You may have to train excessively in order to enhance your performance in a sport. When exercise is naturally a significant part of your life (or even if it’s a choice), you may want to determine how your relationship with exercise is affecting you. For instance, regardless of the physical benefits of exercise, your physical health could be suffering. You may be losing weight and achieving the body type that you wanted, but are you actually healthy? You could be experiencing nutritional deficiencies, physical injuries, or other medical complications due to excessive exercise. For instance, women who exercise excessively may stop menstruating and men may experience lowered testosterone levels. You may feel exhausted or have trouble sleeping. If the impact of exercise is becoming more harmful than beneficial to your health, you might need to make some changes to your routine. Moreover, take note of any changes in your psychological health, such as heightened depression. Notice if your social life is suffering as you prioritize your workouts over your relationships.
Reflect upon what exercise means to you. Consider the purpose of exercise in your life: is it a means for you to nurture and fuel your body, or a way for you to punish it? Do you exercise because you genuinely want to or because you must to avoid feeling badly about yourself? Think about what happens when you do not exercise – you may have a dysfunctional relationship with exercise if you feel an excessive amount of guilt, shame, or anxiety when you do not take part in it. Moreover, take note of how you feel when you take part in exercise – whether you are happy to move, experience being present in your body, and feel some peace of mind, or whether the experience involves self-loathing, body-shaming, retribution, or numbing of emotions. Moreover, consider how much exercise is linked to your eating habits: Are you using exercise to make up for what you have eaten? Does your amount of exercise very much outweigh your food consumption? If changes in your body shape or size are part of your exercise goals, how much space are these aims taking up in your life? Are you more focused on quantifiable outcomes of exercise (i.e. calories burned, weight lost) or feeling good and strong in your body? A healthy relationship with exercise focuses more on enhancing overall well-being, rather than changing one’s physical appearance, compensation for meals, or numbing psychological distress.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.