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Are You Engaging in Unhealthy Exercise?

This title might confuse you, because you might be thinking “isn’t all exercise healthy?” and the answer is no. Exercise becomes unhealthy if your mindset is unhealthy. Since I specialize in eating disorders, I see exercise being unhealthy a lot but, if I’m being honest you do not have to have an eating disorder to practice exercise in a unhealthy manner.

This question is something I get asked by almost every client or parent I have worked with; “can they ever exercise again?” and the answer is yes, I believe exercise is a part of a healthy normal lifestyle. Not only does it provide physical health benefits, doing some form of activity can help with your mental and emotional state as well. However, the question of when or how someone can exercise becomes less certain. My goal in therapy is for my clients to be able to go back to the sport they were doing before their eating disorder. However, if the client can only play this sport in an unhealthy manner then an alternative needs to be sought.

So the big question: How do I know if I am engaging in non-healthy exercise?

Unhealthy exercise or compulsive exercise is when activity stops being a choice and becomes an obligation. When you start to feel like you have to exercise and feel intense guilt or shame if you did not. Compulsive exercise does interfere with your everyday life, for example instead of going out with friends you go for a run because you are unable to miss a day.

Another example of an unhealthy exercise is forcing your body to work out on an injury. Now, I have seen athletes injure themselves while in a game and continue to play in order to win. But, then they go home and give their bodies the proper rest and healing it needs. Even though that might not be an ideal situation it is not what I mean when addressing exercise on an injury. What I am referring to is putting your body under continued stress instead of letting your body heal due to the mindset of “you must exercise in order to have value in your life”. Injury on your body can also be lack of sleep and being overly-exhausted.

Ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you become angry with yourself if you do not work out?

2. Are you motivated to workout due to the type of food you ate?

3. Do you fear you will gain weight if you do not exercise?

4. Are you unable to sit for a while (watch a movie) without the thought of being “lazy” and get up to do something you feel is more productive?

5. Do you work out in inclement weather?

6. Do you miss social events due to exercise?

**If you feel you resonate with a majority of these, I encourage you to reach out to someone who has experience in helping individuals who deal with compulsive exercise.

The importance of easing into exercise in recovery:

If you are stepping into recovery, I would like to say congratulations for that can be a hard decision to make. Secondly, you do not want to jump right into all your previous activities. Disorder thoughts are still too connected and the chance of relapse is high. I advise clients to start with 10-15 minute walks and focus on your thoughts. Are you noticing the breeze and enjoying time with your dog or are you thinking that this is not exercise and obsessing on what you ate and how you need to work it off? These are important things to be honest about when integrating exercise back into your life. Due to the chances of relapse, I encourage no other forms of exercise until you master this step.

The same slow integration comes into play when going back to sports. If you were in multiple sports and are noticing that you are not in a healthy mindset, then I would think about what sport brings you the truest joy. Start with just that sport, I encourage a team sport so you can focus on working with your team instead of being in isolation.

The most important step is to check your mindset before you do any form of exercise; ask yourself “do I truly want to do this or am I forcing myself to?” Remember, be honest with yourself because compulsive exercise can become a serious medical concern and if you are in recovery from an eating disorder it could be a way of relapse.

If you would like more information please feel free to reach out to me or check out the NEDA website:

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