Find peace with food and overcome disordered eating.
Eating Disorder Therapist
Overcome disordered eating and find peace with food
Stopping compulsive exercise - 3 tips
by Harriet Frew on April 14th, 2020

Today I want to talk about ACTIVITY – EXERCISE – MOVEMENT – whatever you want to call it.
I’m going to share my 3 tips to find a peaceful balance with exercise.

You might be struggling with this more than ever now, with the social media pressure to #workoutathome.

Moving our bodies, getting stronger and developing cardio vascular fitness – these are all wonderful things to do for physical and mental wellbeing. Exercising has enormous mental health benefits. It decreases anxiety, improves mood; body image is boosted, and sleep is better.

However, if you have an eating disorder, then exercise can sometimes become a compulsive, addiction. It loses all the joy and can take up hours of the day.

It becomes a way to burn calories alone. It becomes something that leaves you weary and exhausted.

It becomes something you feel that you must do – either to allow yourself permission to eat or to burn off calories eaten.
It gets in the way of your relationships and work.

It can leave you experiencing exhaustion, stress fractures; osteoporosis, dehydration or other health concerns.

Some examples of a destructive relationship with exercise

Some of my clients are wedded to their fitness trackers and having to walk numerous steps per day. This can involve extensive walks or pacing around the house to achieve their required target.

Some of my clients have lost their menstrual cycle through over-exercise and punishing workout regimes. It has impacted their fertility for the long-term.

I have worked with ballet dancers, jockeys and body builders, where the pressure to change your body to fit an ideal weight of shape is momentous. You’re then praised for achieving this body shape, even if the costs to your mental and physical health are detrimental. When your whole identity has become so linked to maintaining a certain body shape, even if it means hours of over-exercise, this can understandably be hard to give up.

And as well, of course there’s also the general trend of wellness culture and influencers showcasing their fitness regimes. It’s become trendy to workout extensively with the strongnotskinny hashtag floated around and used by many people who are likely struggling with disordered eating.

So how to get to a better place with exercise?


Over-exercise is NOT healthy for your body and mind. You may be caught in a dangerous thought pattern, where your view exercise as ‘good; healthy; the right thing to do’ – regardless of the costs.

You need to take a step back.

Write down the pro's and con's of exercising so much.

What are you really gaining? What are you losing out on? What are the costs to your mental and physical health?

Because, until you face the situation head on, it might feel very difficult to even consider change.

In making the first changes:

If you’re doing a certain number of steps per day, think about reducing this by a specific number.

If you’re HAVING to workout so many times a week, think about cutting out a session.
When you do this:

This will produce VERY high anxiety initially.

Over-exercise has become a safety behaviour, which you turn to reduce this anxiety.
Not doing it, might leave you ‘climbing the walls’ to start with.

That’s okay. This is normal. You will get through this.

People generally find that the thought of the change is much worse than the actual change. 
Your head will be telling you all kinds of stories about how you won’t manage.

You might need to have some support in place to help you manage the change.

Eg: speaking to someone about how anxious you feel and them hearing you and supporting you.

You might need to actively fill the time with an activity that offers distraction.

Maybe an arts and crafts activity.

Or writing in a journal about how you’re feeling.

Once you have adjusted to the initial change, you can think about what you might want to do next.

Now, baby steps do add up to a great deal.

It’s helpful to view working on this, as a marathon (excuse the pun) rather than a sprint. You’re not going to change this overnight and it’s unrealistic to even think that this is possible.

However, by taking baby steps, these are going to add up to a whole load of significant change, over the course of the next year.

One day you will look back and see just how far you have come.
It is very common if you have an eating disorder, that you’ll be completely out of tune with your body and its signals.

You might regularly push yourself to exhaustion; over hunger; not resting and always doing, doing, doing. You’ll be driven by the eating disorder voice to keep going, no matter what.
You’ll be driven by an internal critic, who chastises you for not being productive and calls you lazy, if you even think about sitting down.

Your own, inner, quiet and healthy voice may have been drowned out entirely. You probably don’t hear it anymore. If you do, you might not trust it one bit.

If you find yourself on some days, absolutely exhausted or ravenously hungry and wanting to binge eat, you’ve likely been ignoring your body’s signals in the preceding days. Suddenly, your body is shouting and it’s almost impossible to ignore the signals any longer.

It’s much harder to meet your own needs effectively, when you’re pushed to breaking point.

Client example 

(an amalgamation of client issues – not an actual client)

Becky felt that she that she HAD to go to the gym, every single day. It had become a weary SHOULD – she was dragging herself there, even when she was feeling ill or had had a late night and desperately wanted a lay in.

Becky used to love the gym and enjoyed the buzz of it; but now just thinking about it, left her with a sinking feeling. But she didn’t dare NOT go – she worried what would happen if she didn’t follow her routine. She worried that she might gain weight in an out-of-control fashion; she was worried about what she would do with the time that the gym took up and she was fearful of the unknown.

On the other hand, Becky had become so miserable with her regime that she was willing to risk a change. She started very small and managed to start reducing her activity.

Becky was incredibly anxious, when reducing her activity but it was also such a relief to step away from what had become daily self-punishment.

Becky started to keep an exercise diary. She recorded how much activity she was doing. She then worked to keep reducing this bit by bit.

She also recorded her feelings and thoughts in the diary. She realised that although her anxiety was high, there were also other benefits creeping in, which she was able to notice by keeping a record.

Becky started to sleep much better and found that energy levels began to improve. She also noticed that her hunger felt more manageable, as the overactivity has driven her to regular bingeing. She began to feel less uptight day-to-day and was able to focus and enjoy things more.

Her fears about weight gain or losing control were in fact unfounded. Becky in fact felt more in control, as she wasn’t having to think about her next activity session.
Try to move away from seeing exercise as something that has to be done to purely burn off calories eaten.  This leads to a very ‘all or nothing’ relationship with activity.

Because, you’re either doing well with it or you abandon it completely.

Move towards seeing activity as something for mental wellbeing, as well as physical.

Think about decreased anxiety; improved mood; better body image and sleep.

Get curious about different activities you could try.

It might be time to be brave to embrace something that is different or out of your comfort zone.

I do appreciate this is more limited currently.

Looking ahead,

dance, yoga, climbing, a team sport, circus skills even – what would work for you?

It might mean that you must step away from the gym or somewhere else that has become quite toxic for you – at least for a while.

You might need to choose an activity, where there is a time limit – for example – a class, if you feel that you might be tempted to exercise without limits.

It might take a little while to transition towards a different relationship with exercise; don’t give up though. It’s worth it.

In summary:

Being active and moving your body is wonderful for your mental and physical wellbeing.
When it becomes a compulsion though, it’s destructive and it’s not healthy.

  • Get real about your activity and if it is really helping you.
  • Start to listen to your body and begin to trust its innate signals.
  • Think about engaging in movement that is joyful and fun. Value the mental health benefits and doing activity to keep your mind and body in a good place.
Good luck! 😊

Posted in Exercise, over-exercise, compulsive exercise    Tagged with over-exercise, compulsive exercise, exercise addiction


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