Remember being a little kid, poking or pinching or prodding at a perceived injury and telling your parent, “It hurts when I do this!” The parent unfailingly responded with, “Well, don’t do that.”
I recently read an article in which the writer was comparing her exercise preferences to her friend’s. The friend preferred yoga, while the author mentioned that she typically only did yoga when she was injured from CrossFit. What got me was this – she was injured from CrossFit frequently enough that she had a routine. It reminds me of what my parents always said when I was little, “Well, don’t do that.”
There are lots of false notions about exercise, such as that exercising to the point of injury means you’re doing something right. Many of these ideas are indicative of compulsive exercise, a disorder in which a person has a perception that they are only okay/healthy/worthy because they exercise, and because of how much they exercise. A compulsive exerciser uses exercise beyond the point of achieving health benefits to a point where exercise can become both physically and mentally unhealthy.
Here are four common thoughts about exercise that are actually unhealthy:
- “I have to exercise to burn off the treat I ate” OR “I have to exercise so that I can go out to eat later.”
Thinking of exercise as an exchange for food is very typical. This thought is perpetuated by “motivation” such as, “Before you eat that candy bar, think of how many minutes you would have to exercise to burn it off!” This may seem harmless, but it cheapens exercise to simply being a means to manage weight by disregarding the other health benefits of exercise. Additionally, thinking of exercise as punishment or permission for eating can be damaging to mental health by growing into an obsession in which a person eats only if they have or will exercise to balance out the calories from the food.
- “I should run/CrossFit/etc. to be healthy.”
Some sort of exercise and body movement is important in a healthy lifestyle for many reasons. However, people often get caught up believing that one specific exercise is the best or only way to achieve health. Even if they dislike running, a person may believe they have to run. The same goes for CrossFit, or any of a number of other exercises. This can be harmful to health in two ways. First, a person may not exercise at all because they dislike CrossFit but they believe they must do it, and thus end up not exercising at all. Another possibility is that a person believes they have to do Olympic weightlifting, and participate even though it is not something they enjoy and may actually dread. This person might develop a negative association with exercise and their overall happiness and well-being may suffer as a result.
- “I have to work out every day no matter what” OR “No excuses.”
This is where the obsession piece of compulsive exercising becomes a bit more clear. A compulsive exerciser takes the “no excuses” mantra to the extreme, possibly missing important events such as with their family, or forcing themselves to work out even when distressed such as experiencing loss of a loved one or a divorce. While it is important to prioritize exercise and include it in your lifestyle frequently and consistently for stress relief and other health purposes, this extreme can reach a point of being unhealthy as the person may be using exercise to avoid dealing with other stresses or concerns in their life.
- “If I don’t go ‘all-out,’ it isn’t worth exercising.”
Extreme workouts have become very popular in recent years. Exercising to the point of exhaustion and injury is starting to be seen as noble. While we have to push and challenge our bodies to make gains in strength and speed, there is also benefit to be gained from gentler exercises. Taking a walk, playing with children, or going for a leisurely bike ride or swim all count as exercise and are all worth the time to glean well-being value.
Achieving and maintaining balance with exercise can be a struggle. Unlike other addictions, exercise cannot and should not simply be removed from one’s life. Rather, an ongoing re-evaluation must take place to determine whether exercise is being included enough or too much, and in appropriate ways that the individual enjoys. There is no one way to be healthy; many different means of choosing health can be right for any person.
For more information about compulsive exercising, please visit the following links:
Have you or someone you know experienced compulsive exercise thoughts or practices? Please share in the comments section below!