My #1 motivation for getting better and staying better: These guys.
Wanting to exercise all the time: Yeah, yeah, it’s the problem everyone wishes they had. But the compulsion that drives someone to be a gym rat is hardly enviable. First, just like eating disorders aren’t about the food, compulsive over-exercising isn’t about the fitness. People used to say to me, as I walked in the gym for my second or third workout of the day, “You’re so passionate! You must really love Turbokick/Zumba/Weight lifting/Running/Acrobatics with flaming hula hoops on a high wire!” And while I did – and do – genuinely love working out, my exercise addiction had zilch to do with love. It was 100% fear-based. I was afraid I’d get fat. I was afraid of being weak. I was afraid of being at home alone all day with my four very young children. I was afraid I’d never be good at anything again, ever (black-and-white thinking for the win!). But most of all I was afraid of being left alone with my own thoughts. What I really loved about my chronic overexercising was that all the pain and sweat made it so I didn’t have to think about what was really bothering me.
I wasn’t working out so much because I loved it. I was working out so much because I was too afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. It was this I first thought of when I read Reader S’s e-mail. At the beginning she described her history with exercise and then her current regimen, which I’ve omitted not because they’re bad or that S was wrong to include them or anything but just because she used some specific numbers and if I’ve learned one thing about ED’s it’s how much they love to compare. So I’m erring on the side of caution! She concluded with:
First, thank you so much for saying thank you! You guys have no idea how much your little notes of appreciation mean to me! I love your helpful criticisms too (truly, I do) but it always makes my day to open up my e-mail and find one of these little gems. This is why I do this. (Okay that and because crowd sourcing my mental health issues is completely awesome.) Second, I realized that I don’t really have any blog posts about conquering exercise addiction. I have a few detailing specific hurdles (ha!) and how I overcame them. I have a lot of posts about how I failed at this. It just never felt like the right time before because I didn’t yet have enough distance from my ED to think around it. It was too fresh , too present. But then I realized that other than that hiccup a year ago* where I went down the rabbit hole for a month, I’ve been doing really well with my exercise compulsion for a good two years! I know! Cue confetti! I’m not perfect but I sure have come a long way. Taking rest days – even unexpected ones – doesn’t freak me out anymore. I don’t schedule every activity around my workouts. And best of all, most days I’m working out an hour a day or less, six days a week.
So for S and for any of you who are caught in the throes of this struggle, here are my best tips and I hope that you guys will add yours as well in the comments!
1. Recognize you have a legitimate problem. This is crucial because most of society won’t. For most people there is no such thing as too much exercise and they’ll see your illness as strength, desirable even. This attitude is reinforced by the media with shows about extreme weight loss, extreme exercise and extreme eating. How do you know if you have a problem? Answering these six questions is a great place to start. I’d also listen carefully to those who love and know you the best. If they think you have a problem, take them seriously.
2. Read up on the science. I don’t know if you’re like me but I always like to know the WHY of everything. So reading all the research studies that show that a) you only need 30 minutes a day to reap the health benefits, b) our bodies weren’t made to endure a lot of endurance work and doing too much cardio can actually weaken your heart and c) exercise makes you hungrier which can just perpetuate the cycle of working out to eat. (I’m not saying there aren’t real and wonderful benefits of exercise in the research but that’s not the point of this particular post. Anything taken to the extreme, even healthy behaviors, can become harmful.)
3. Look at real results. Have you gained weight dropping down to 6 days a week instead of 7 and giving yourself a rest day? I’d be surprised if you did. For me, over-exercising actually made me gain 10 pounds because I suppressed my own thyroid. (I. Am. Awesome). When I went to a more reasonable schedule, I found I lost a few pounds and that maintaining my weight wasn’t difficult. When I looked at what was actually happening to my body it didn’t match up at all with what the crazy part of my brain was telling me would happen. And in that argument reality always wins. Or at least it should!
4. Recognize what purpose exercise serves for you. For me, working out was my whole social life, my entertainment, my passion, my sense of safety and self worth and my primary way of dealing with anxiety (esp. my anxiety about gaining weight and being not-perfect). While none of these reasons are bad in moderation, taken together they made a perfect storm where I only could feel happy and calm when I was working out. When you look at it that way, of course I over-exercised! But what ED therapy helped me do was to realize that while exercise could help with those things, it couldn’t be all those things to me all the time. So I’ve had to work on making friends outside fitness pursuits, finding activities I enjoy that don’t involve exercise (seriously, my therapist assigned me to find a TV show to watch every week! I kinda love Nashville right now. You can stage the intervention for me later.), finding other topics I feel passionate about (education!) and most importantly, other techniques to manage my anxiety (meditation, calling my sister, sketching, playing the piano, hugging my kids etc).
5. Be prepared for a fight. I’m not going to lie: It’s hard. Sitting at home when I knew that one of my “usual” classes was going on would send me into a panic attack. I’d cry. Seriously. (You know you’ve got a problem when you cry over missing an aerobics class…) But anticipating it was going to be difficult, especially at first, helped me to prepare by scheduling a different activity so I wouldn’t be obsessing over what I was missing. (Taking my kids to a public place like the library works well. Usually I’m so focused on telling them not act crazy, laughing a little when they do something crazy and then getting embarrassed when other people glare at me for their craziness that I can’t think about anything else.) At the beginning my anxiety was off the charts but as I got better at doing my other calming techniques my body began to lose that fear response. The more times you do it, the easier it will get.
6. Look at the damage. This was probably the hardest part for me. Life is all about choices and choosing one thing means automatically not choosing a bunch of others. I had to sit down and recognize that I’d missed out on big chunks of my kids’ lives because I’d been out running or at a class or lifting weights in the gym. This was devastating to me when I actually sat down and assessed all the collateral damage. I’d missed friends’ kids’ baptisms. I’d missed birthday parties. I’d missed girl’s nights out. Soccer games. Kindergarten choir concerts. Date nights with my husband. I hadn’t thought of all the things - and people, sadly – that I was unchoosing every time I chose my workouts. Plus, there’s the physical damage. You don’t need me to tell you that working out too much hurts your body in so many ways. You have to find the sweet spot between too much and too little and then stick with it. (For me, my therapists put a cap on my workouts at 1 hour a day/6 days a week.)
7. Know you can do this. Believe it. If I can do this, anyone can. Not to get all Stewart Smalley up in here but you are strong enough and smart enough and worth all this effort. And know that you’ll be happier for it.
8. Get help if you need it. Ain’t no shame in getting some therapy! Some people can take themselves away from the edge. I couldn’t. I didn’t even recognize how far over the edge I even was. It took an intervention, a minor medical crisis and two rounds of out-patient ED therapy to get me through the worst of it. And I still go in for maintenance work every once in a while!
How do you guys find the balance between too much and too little exercise? Do you have any advice, encouragement or support for S? (Seriously, sometimes I like what I write in answer to a reader’s question but I always LOVE what you guys write. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences! You help more people than you know:))
*I know, I never really explained what happened there. The short version is that someone did something to me (not criminal, just not very nice) in such a way that it triggered a crap ton of PTSD memories of my sexual assault and abusive relationship. Most of it was stuff I hadn’t thought about since it happened and reliving those memories felt as horrible as it did the first time around except maybe a little worse because I didn’t have the confusion and adrenaline of being in the moment. It was a very dark time for me with a lot of sitting in a ball, shaking, crying, puking and wishing my *#$(*&^ brain wasn’t so broken. There was also a lot of brain-numbing exercise, too much probably. But the upside is that it got me back into therapy and able to talk about some stuff that I’d never said out loud to anyone before. It was huge. I recovered and regained my equilibrium (hopefully to never be shattered like that again – egads that was miserable.) Why am I telling you this now? A) because there is such a strong link between eating disorders and sexual abuse and B) because I want other girls who’ve been through something similar to know that they’re not weird for still having nightmares and that the PTSD, while horrible, can be managed. You are not weird. You are not broken. You are not damaged goods. And most of all, you are not alone.