Compulsive Over Exercise: Moving Towards Life-Enhancing Movement

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Exercise is a seemingly harmless activity that many people incorporate into their lives in the efforts of finding health. However, compulsive exercise can ruin our relationship with movement.

There is a delicate balance to be found with exercise, because in this case there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

In this article we’ll explore the following:

  • Defining the differences between movement and exercise
  • Signs of compulsive exercise
  • How to assess your own relationship with movement
  • How to create a life-enhancing relationship with movement

Exercise Versus Movement

Let’s begin with a few thoughts on vocabulary before we dive further into this post. A common vocabulary shift we encourage is the use of the word “movement” rather than “exercise.”

Our society tends to view exercise with a more negative, rule governed, and punishing lens. We envision physical exertion, soreness, sweating, fatigue, and rigid energy expenditure to the point of discomfort or pain.

Opposingly, when we use the word movement, this invites more flexibility for interpretation and definition. The word movement is inclusive of many types of physical activity ranging from household cleaning to laser tag with friends. 

We use the word movement to honor that simply moving our bodies deserves “credit” and this term respects an individual’s physical limitations, preferences, and lifestyle.

Signs of Compulsive Exercise

What behaviors might indicate a compulsive relationship with exercise?

Defining the line between healthy activity and compulsive over exercise is tricky.

Our society seems to always push for increasing our activity levels (ie. 10,000 steps/day, 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise daily, etc.). But just as we have discussed in previous blog posts (link here) diet culture has a significant impact on our perception of healthy exercising habits.

Common traits of compulsive over exercise include ritualistic patterns, high intensity levels, anxiety without routine, and rigid expectations around calories/distance/pacing/weight.

Along with emotional and psychological consequences, over exercise comes with a number of physical consequences as well. These include muscle damage (stunted strength), organ shrinkage, altered metabolism, heart complications, menstrual cycle changes, and heightened risk of injury.

There are many charts similar to the one below that demonstrate the increased risk of injury and loss of health benefits as exercise increases:

Photo credit

What health consequences might compulsive exercise lead to?

So now that we know that more exercise is not exponentially better, what are the consequences?

Psychological distress is a large part of compulsive movement, especially in eating disorder recovery. It may feel like a healthy coping skill, but do you have any other coping skills? How much mental energy does it take to maintain your expectations around exercise?

Engaging in compulsive over exercise is a huge red flag for eating disorder relapse. Since it is socially acceptable to live a fitness-focused lifestyle, this eating disorder symptom is easily pushed under a rug.

Assessing Your Relationship with Movement

The following questions could be helpful to explore if you aren’t quite sure how to assess your personal relationship with movement:

Are you moving to compensate for eating certain foods/amounts?

Do you rigidly focus on numbers associated with movement?

Does this exercise interfere with your daily life, relationships, responsibilities?

How often do you exercise when you are hurt or sick?

Do you take rest days?

How much do you enjoy the movement you are engaging in? Or does it feel more like a chore you are checking off a list?

Are you basing your self-worth off of how much you exercise or how well you perform?

How might you respond to being told you couldn’t exercise for an extended period of time by a medical professional?

Would you engage in this movement if you knew it would have no impact on your physical appearance or weight?

Reflect on your answers to these questions and honestly assess where your answers land you on the spectrum between healthy and unhealthy movement.

Finding a Path Towards Life-Enhancing Movement

What does a healthy relationship with movement look like?

When an individual engages mindfully with movement they will be flexible, feel energized, and enjoy the movement they engage in.

This involves exploring new types of movement, incorporating adequate rest and intuitively listening to what our body is telling us. We must find motivation outside of body image and adequately fuel our bodies for exercise.

Life-enhancing movement holds no judgment or comparison. We are able to adapt our plans throughout the year and our lives (ie. the movement I do in my 20’s likely won’t look like what I do in my 60’s).

Life-enhancing movement can decrease stress, it can give us happy endorphins, and it can be social/relationship building.

Physically, a mindful relationship with movement can impact our heart health, bone health, flexibility, strength, and respiratory health positively.

How can you begin your journey to life-enhancing movement?

There are plenty of small challenges you can begin to experiment with in your daily life.

Some of these changes may look like trying a new type of movement, adding an additional rest day, or journaling your thoughts/feelings/and physical sensations before, during, and after movement.

However, to many, the task of moving from compulsive over movement to mindful movement can feel quite daunting.

We’ve been there too! That’s exactly why we created our FREE Healing Your Relationship with Exercise Masterclass.

This class will dive deep into why so many of us struggle with an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Our step-by-step process will teach you how to identify and cope with your unique triggers.After taking this course, you will walk away with a clear plan on how to build an empowering relationship with exercise.

As always, stay well!

Jessi & Taylor

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