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I'm Ryann. Founder of NourishRX, mom of three and a certified eating disorders registered dietitian. To us, you're a unique individual with a story that led you to where you are today. Welcome, we are thrilled to have you here!

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How to Work on Compulsive Exercise

Movement

July 11, 2024

Ah exercise. An important and helpful tool in life and in eating disorder recovery. However, when individuals engage in excessive or compulsive exercise it can be extremely dangerous to both their physical and mental health. In this blog we are diving into what compulsive exercise is, the dangers, and how we can move towards a positive relationship with movement.

What is compulsive exercise

Amy Gardner, MS, CEDED, RYT writes in her amazing book, iMove, “Compulsive exercise is exercising past the point of what would be considered health-promoting and surpassing the body’s cues, leading to pain, discomfort and risk of injury. Unlike healthy exercisers, compulsive exercisers experience low mood and anxiety when they can’t exercise. Exercise is a source of obligation, not enjoyment. A day away from the gym, bike or treadmill does feel like the end of the world. Continually taxed, without opportunity for rest, the body becomes depleted ultimately leading to injury and illness (physical and psychological). 

Compulsive exercise works on the same principle as any other compulsive behavior; it serves to help escape the moment. It also has features of dependence: salience, withdrawal, mood change, conflict tolerance, and relapse.”

Compulsive exercise is prevalent in between 3-3.5% of the exercising population. There are two categories of compulsive exercise: primary and secondary. In primary compulsive exercise, there are no concurring psychological conditions and the experience they get from the exercise is the driving force. In secondary, there is another underlying condition, often an eating disorder, where another driving force (often body image) reigns supreme.

how to work on compulsive exercise

dangers of compulsive exercise

As mentioned above, compulsive exercise is a dangerous behavior that impacts multiple areas of health. We’ve included a few of the major concerns below. 

Musculoskeletal Concerns:

When engaging in vigorous exercise, muscles have the opportunity to be pushed too fat, too hard and too soon. This can lead to an increased risk of injury. Under-oxygenated muscles can rip or tear, leading to injury in the muscle itself or nearby tendon, joints, and ligaments (1). 

Additionally, eating disorders can increase the risk of bone loss. While weight bearing exercise can offset some of the loss seen with eating disorders, compulsive exercise complicates things. When an individual is exercising compulsively, they put an increased amount of pressure on their bones and joints. Not to mention, those who engage in repetitive high-impact activities are at risk for shin splints, stress fractures, tendonitis, periostitis (inflammation of the member over the bone) and joint damage (1).

Cardiovascular Concerns

Individuals who engage in compulsive exercise and disordered eating behaviors are at risk for arrhythmias and cardiac arrest. In order to engage in physical activity, it requires the heart to pump blood to the system and ensure the muscles are receiving a continuous flow of oxygen. 

When you are over-exercising and under-fueling, this puts incredible demand on the heart to meet these increased needs to pump more blood into the system.

Endocrine Disruption

Females who exercise compulsively are at risk for amenorrhea (loss of menses) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).  Read our blog post all about RED-S.

Social and Emotional Concerns

When you are engaging in compulsive exercise, it can lead you to focus on little else. Potentially you are missing out on family vacations, time with friends or other social events due to the need to exercise. This increase in social isolation can have a significant impact on overall mental health. 

Additionally, when you are exhausting the body through exercise, you may start to feel tired and have difficulty sleeping at night. Compulsive exercisers can also experience an increase in anxiety and depression when they take breaks from movement. This can perpetuate a harmful cycle that they have to continue to move to feel good. 

In our society today, compulsive exercise is so normalized that it can make it difficult to understand that what you are engaging in could be harmful. This acts as a significant barrier for clients reaching out for support. However, if you have concerns about your own relationship with exercise and feel that you are ready to start exploring how this is impacting your life, we’ve detailed some potential steps to get started.

how to work on compulsive exercise

Ways to Work on Compulsive Exercise

Make sure you are working with an eating disorder-informed team.

Whether you have an eating disorder diagnosis or not, engaging in compulsive exercise is a disordered behavior. Having a team who understands this can help guide them to make appropriate recommendations for your health. Remember, engaging in compulsive exercise is dangerous and you want to ensure you have all necessary team members collaborating. This can include: a dietitian, therapist and medical provider.

Start to explore the “why” behind compulsive exercise for you

There are common, underlying themes when it comes to engaging in compulsive exercise. These may include: negative body image, obsessive-compulsive personality style and a history of trauma. Working with an eating disorder informed therapist to help you understand the “why” behind your behaviors is a powerful step to help you understand the road map to changing this behavior.

how to work on compulsive exercise

Practice connecting to your body

Much of the time, compulsive exercise behaviors are about disconnecting from your physical form. This can lead to pushing through pain or injury and serious harm. While you work to heal your relationship with movement, you can start by engaging in practices that are more connecting and grounding. Our favorites include: 

  • Meditation, some forms include:
    • Progressive Relaxation Meditation (PRM)
    • Loving Kindness Meditation
    • Visualization
    • Vipassana 
    • Guided Meditations (Think: Headspace or Calm app)
  • Breathing, some forms include: 
    • Box Breathing (for example, imagine drawing a box with your breath and inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds)
    • Kapalabhati Breathing (passive inhale and active exhale) 
    • Alternate nostril breathing
  • Humming or Singing
  • Bouncing or Swaying 

We recommend connecting with your team about these practices.

Expand your idea of movement

Start to think about the different forms of movement that you could engage with throughout the day. What types of movement have you participated in throughout your life? What types of movement did you truly enjoy? Make a list and reflect on your experience with each one.

practice!

We strongly recommend consulting with your treatment team about when the practice phase should start. And, when integrating different forms of movement, consider working with a HAES aligned personal trainer. 

As you start to practice new and different forms of movement, we challenge you to stay curious.

  • What thoughts or feelings did you have going into the movement experience? What’s happening after?
  • How fun or joyful was that movement experience for you?
  • How connected are you to your body prior to moving, during movement and after?
how to work on compulsive exercise

how nourishrx can support you

Integrating different forms of movement is a *process* and not everyday will feel amazing. Staying curious and documenting your thoughts can be helpful as you navigate this! 

Navigating the waters of compulsive exercise is hard work. As mentioned above, our culture praises exercise to such an extent that disordered and excessive behaviors are normalized. 

Please know that if you are struggling with your relationship with exercise, you are deserving of support. Reach out to our office today to see how our HAES-aligned personal trainer can support you in reconnecting with your body. 

References:

  1. iMove by Amy Gardner - this book is a NEED for all clients and clinicians alike. We cannot recommend it enough!

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CATEGORIES

eating disorders

intuitive eating

diet talk

meal planning

movement

parent support

work with us

tell me more!

I'm Ryann. Founder of NourishRX, mom of three and a certified eating disorders registered dietitian. To us, you're a unique individual with a story that led you to where you are today. Welcome, we are thrilled to have you here!

Hello!

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