What is Compulsive Exercise?

I talk a lot about relationship with food and our bodies so today I want to touch on a piece that is really connected to all of this: our relationship with exercise. We live in a society where the 'ideal body' involves sculpted muscles and low body fat and we hear all the time about the benefits of activity. While there are many health benefits to activity, there is a dark side to all of this that we don't talk about enough: compulsive exercising.



I know what you're thinking- most people sit too much so if I'm really active, that's a good thing, right? The truth is, whether your level of activity is physically, mental, and emotionally healthy depends a lot on your WHY for exercising, if you're fuelling your body properly, and if you're able to give yourself time off when you need it.


Exercising too much without proper rest can have a really negative effect on our physical health, along with our mental and emotional health. All too often though, these behaviours aren't recognized as disordered and actually get praised. The person who feels like they need to exercise every day and can't give themselves a day off without feeling guilty gets reinforced with statements from other people like "wow, you're so dedicated, I wish I had your discipline." In truth, compulsive exercising can lead to a variety of problems including overuse injuries and stress fractures, increased infections, and withdrawal from loved ones.


So what exactly is compulsive exercising? One study on the subject defines it as:


"rigid and highly driven urge to be physically active, in association with a perceived inability to stop exercising despite the individual being aware of the possible negative consequences."

In other words, compulsive exercising is when you have the need to exercise  and can't give yourself time off without feeling guilty and anxious, even though you might realize you should take a break.


So today, I'm asking the question to you: how is your relationship with exercise? I've got some questions for you to think about below for you to examine your thoughts and behaviours around exercise along with some information to help if you're struggling.


1) Can you give yourself rest days? 


If the idea of taking a day off from exercise makes you anxious or uncomfortable, this might be a cue your relationship with exercise is less than healthy. In order for your body to recover properly, you need rest! If you're running, lifting weights, cycling, etc. every single day, your muscle tissue isn't getting enough of a chance to repair itself.


This is even more of a problem if you can't let yourself take a day off when you're sick or injured. This can lead to your injury becoming worse and taking longer for your body to recover from illness.


Athletes know the importance of rest days during training for proper gains in strength and speed. If you can't give yourself a day off, you're doing more harm to your body than good and it might be time to start examining WHY you can't take a day off.


2) Is food something that fuels your exercise or something you need to burn off?


Food is the gas in your gas tank that gives you the energy to move your body, not something that needs to be burned off as punishment. Give yourself a moment to think about that and which way you view food when it comes to activity- which side to you see it?


If you aren't giving your body adequate fuel for your workouts and your body's needs and you're trying to run on empty, you may be doing more harm than good. This energy deficit can lead to something called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which can occur with or without disordered eating and compulsive exercise.


RED-S can lead to health problems including chronic fatigue, increased risk of illness and injury, problems with bone and heart health, poor sleep, poor mood, loss of lean body mass, and decreasing metabolic rate. It can also lead to other issues including hormonal disruption like stopping your period, which is NOT normal. Not only is under-fuelling bad for performance, it’s bad for your health! It's important to note that RED-S can happen whatever your body size- it can happen in people in larger bodies and smaller bodies alike.


3) Do you avoid social gatherings if they get in the way of your activity?


So you usually do your workout in the evenings and you have a family function the same time as your usual workout. Does the idea of skipping your workout make you so uncomfortable that you skip the family function? Do you turn down opportunities to spend time with family and friends because you don’t want to miss a workout?


What are some other cues you may have a problem with exercise?


Other factors that are cues to compulsive exercise according to the National Eating Disorder Association include:


  • Continuing to exercise despite an injury or other medical reason not to exercise

  • Exercising to burn off the xxx calories you ate (exercise as purging)

  • Feeling like you don't deserve to eat unless you exercised

  • Hiding your exercise to avoid hearing others' concern about your activity

  • Exercising to avoid negative emotions (not the same as exercising to improve mood- this is more exercising to avoid feelings of withdrawal)

  • Feeling as though you are not good enough, fast enough or not pushing hard enough during a period of exercise.


If you're struggling with your relationship with exercise, there is help!


If you're struggling, consider seeking help from a professional like a therapist, doctor, and/or dietitian specializing in eating disorders, which is available through the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) here.


To quote the fabulous sport dietitian, Nancy Clarke, exercise should be something you do FOR your body, not TO it! Exercise and movement is important for our health but it is possible to do too much, especially if you aren't getting enough rest and fuel and it gets in the way of living a full life! Just like a healthy relationship with food is possible, it's possible with exercise too! Sometimes you just need help.





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