Do you struggle with compulsive exercise? Do you feel you must hit the gym in order to lose or maintain your weight? Do you wonder if your relationship to exercise is a problem?
Health professionals generally encourage people to exercise. Physical activity can help ward off disease, strengthen your heart and bones, and improve your mood and self-esteem.
But people often take it too far. They become exercise-addicted, developing a compulsive relationship to physical activity. Or, as part of an eating disorder or body image disturbance, they feel they must exercise in order to tame their weight or shape or size. Here’s where exercise becomes problematic.
I often hear that people struggle around knowing where to draw the line. Does exercise feel like a “have to” rather than a “want to”? Do you have rigid rules around what you must complete during any given workout in order for it to “count”? Finally, how do you know if you are exercising motivated by self-care or self-attack? That’s a question I ask a lot.
The truth is, there are many shades of grey. Motivation can be multifaceted and not entirely conscious. That said, I will often encourage my clients to ask themselves “Would I do this same workout – at the same duration and intensity – if I knew it wouldn’t impact my weight at all?” That question can serve as a barometer for your motivation. If your answer is no, you might want to consider adjusting what you’re doing. It’s likely that the activity isn’t enjoyable or sustainable and could cross over into compulsive territory. If the answer is yes, then you’ve found your fitness groove, a way of moving your body that is rewarding and reinforcing, allowing for continued, healthy participation over the long haul.
Finally, if you find that you’re attacking yourself while engaged in physical activity, stop moving for a moment and check yourself. The ability to move our bodies is a privilege. Berating yourself for what you ate or what you look like in the mirror or for not performing up to your expectations directly competes with any benefits (physical or mental) of exercise. Listen to your body and its limits for that day (limits vary day to day), take a deep breath, and refocus on caring for your body and well-being.