I’ve been pretty open about the things I’ve been through and one of those is my problem with exercise addiction. Here’s a look at how I found my balance and some tips on how you can too. 🙂
One thing I’ve learned through my recovery from drugs and alcohol is that addiction is addiction and it simply manifests itself in different ways for different people. For me, it’s a way to control things that are outside of my control. When things in my life seem uncomfortable or unmanageable, I would seek to exert control by controlling those things I could. When I was faced with feelings I didn’t know how to process, I would control something like exercise or food as a way to try and cope.
I had quit using drugs and alcohol, but was still in the process of learning how to live and how to come into myself as a person. As life started to get a little better, I took a step back from intensively trying to do that. I had found a job, I had an adult relationship, and I was living a healthier life.
I’d always been into fitness, sometimes in a healthy way and sometimes verging on abusive. As my life was coming back together, I decided that I would put a priority on my health — eating better and working out regularly. Since I wasn’t doing quite as much internal work or having conversations with other people in recovery, my own reasoning began telling me that if a little bit was good, a lot must be better.
Running was my primary choice of exercise during that time. I lived in suburban Virginia where there were beautiful outdoor trails and I had access to a “cardio cinema” in my gym — a large, dark room filled with cardio equipment where movies would play on a giant screen.
I began logging my miles on a Google calendar and felt extremely uncomfortable on days when I couldn’t run. Against all the fitness knowledge I already had, I decided that I needed to run farther and faster each time. I would run 9-10 miles in the cardio cinema because I decided that I had to stay and watch as much of the movie as possible. I would push myself to the max in order reach an arbitrary “perfect” version of myself that was always changing the closer I got to it.
I decided to get help after running twelve miles one day, then feeling compelled to HAVE to do it again the next day but faster. The following morning after that second day, I stepped out of bed and couldn’t put weight on my left leg. I had developed a stress fracture from excessive running and disordered eating which left me unable to run for several weeks.
I had done enough work on myself to know that this behavior was abnormal, but it took a physical injury for me to decide to open my mouth and get help. I told others in recovery what was going on and even just saying the words out loud took away much of their power. I was able to focus more on my recovery and personal growth and eventually found peace with exercise.
I’ve shared this story several times, then inevitably follow it up with the fact that I am now a personal trainer. Others listening to that story might not think anything of it, but I figure that if even I think it sounds questionable, at least one other person does. How does a person who has had such a tough relationship with exercise and physical appearance help others in that field? Who is to say that I don’t still have a problem and am trying to make it valid by making it a job?
There was no one thing that shifted my relationship with exercise. It was a combination of learning to appreciate myself, understand myself, and love myself. Those things were accomplished with help from others, therapy, and time. I would love to offer clear cut directions — BELIEVE ME, it’s what I would continually ask for during my own process, but it’s not something that works that way.
I know I’m in a different place because I’m aware of the shift every time I work out. I’m no longer trying to beat everyone around me. I don’t force myself to go to workouts when I’m overly sore or exhausted. I give myself rest days (and don’t feel like I’m crawling out of my skin). I’m comfortable in the middle. I’ll push myself, but not to the point of injury. I listen to my body and know when it needs a break.
Getting back into an exercise routine when you’ve had such a complicated relationship with it can be difficult, even daunting. Here are some of my best tips to find your balance after an exercise addiction.
If you’re anything like me, then it’s all or nothing, black or white. If you were used to working out 6-7 days/week, it can be hard to do less than that. Listen to me — you have to slow down.
Exercise 2-3 times a week. Just move your body. Do yoga. Really pay attention to how you feel after exercise. You will have to learn how to let your body rest through rest days which will leave you stronger for the next time — not the other way around.
Don’t make it about the physical
Exercise for me, along with control, was about physical results. I wanted to look a certain way. If I did, I felt that no one around me would question how I was feeling on the inside. Continually working to attain those physical goals (which were completely unrealistic) was something that caused me to push myself harder than I should have. It caused me to obsess over workouts and what I saw in the mirror.
Goals are good, but if you’re recovering from an exercise addiction, they should be the furthest thing from your mind. Really focus on how exercise makes you feel. Do you feel strong? Do you feel capable? How is your mood after exercise? Focus on those things first before setting goals that could cause you to put undo pressure on yourself.
The most important thing I did while trying to learn to exercise in a healthy way was to pay attention to my thoughts and feelings surrounding it. Was I obsessing about when/how to work out? Did I experience negative feelings when having a rest day? What was my motivation?
Make sure to ask yourself questions like this as you start exercising again. If you find yourself answering “yes” or having a negative motivation to work out, take a step back.
Ask for help
The next step if you find yourself repeating negative thoughts and behaviors is to ask for help. There’s no shame in knowing that you can’t change on your own and asking for help will often give you a different perspective than the one that is causing you difficulties.
As I mentioned above, just opening my mouth about what was going on was enough for me to see the situation more clearly. After that, I was able to put things in better perspective and the advice from other people helped me realize what was and was not important.
Take a break
If all else fails, take a break for awhile. I know it can be hard. Maybe your break is just to get back to spending time with yourself. Maybe it’s to slow down until you feel ready again. Hopefully it’s to get some help.
Even though I no longer struggle with the obsessions and compulsions of the past, there have been times when I’ve been injured and haven’t been able to work out for a month or more. It’s frustrating. Thankfully, I’ve learned that life isn’t over and in the span of life, a break is really not the end of the world.