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When Exercise Is an Addiction

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For me, exercise is a topic fraught with anxiety, shame and exhilaration. I have always been an active person, though when I was younger, exercise was something I never thought about — it just happened. Whether it was playing kickball every day with my friends and siblings, riding my bike, sledding in the winter or playing hide and seek using a whole block of the neighborhood; it wasn’t intentional, mindful, harming or meaningful. Moving my body was natural and fun. It was normal.

Then everyone got too old for playing. My older brother moved out, and he was often the driving force behind the games of hide and seek and kickball. I no longer had outdoor activities that regularly kept me moving. This is just occurring to me now, I didn’t really miss the exercise. I missed the companionship. I started getting older and “more serious.” In reality, I was depressed. I hated growing up, and missed being able to play imaginative games all day long. 

All of a sudden I was in crises. I hated myself and who I was becoming. I began to run away from what was happening to me. I ran and ran, until the numbers on the treadmill were high enough, until I was exhausted, until I felt OK. 

But it was never enough. I always wanted more. But I hated it. I hated the grip exercise now had on my life. I hated how I had to get my running, walking, or biking in, knowing if I didn’t I would be a nervous wreck. The anxiety mounted to the point where I would pull out my hair because I was nervous about so many things, one of them being whether or not I would get my exercise session in that afternoon. 

I knew what I was doing was not healthy. I knew it was “wrong.” I wasn’t moving my body because it felt good, or served a healthy purpose. I began seeing a doctor after my diagnosis, and he thought some gentle exercise would be good for me and my state of mind, maybe help with my depression and anxiety. The agreement was, I could walk at a slow pace for a portion of time each day, as long as I ate what the doctor and my mom suggested. At this point, I hated exercise, but I was so addicted mentally and emotionally that I let the doctor believe I thought it would be beneficial to my mental health also. The truth was, I was being set up for a mind-game of a very detrimental kind.

The deal became, if I ate and gained weight, I could exercise more. This was what a professional medical practitioner was saying to me.

My eating disorder loved this, he said the more energy I used, the better. But how messed up was this situation? The eating disorder was thriving. My relationship with exercise was growing more and more convoluted. I began to exercise in secret. I would slip out with our dog, late at night or at any opportunity during the day. At one point my brother saw me riding bike on the edge of town and told parents. I was warned. I was scared my body would give out. I would exercise rain or shine.

It was an awkward situation. No one really knew how to approach me about it. I could tell my sisters were mad when I walked our dog so much that mom said they shouldn’t take her on another one as she was probably worn out. I think our dog got to the point where she hated hearing me whisper “walk?!” to her in a quiet, fervent voice. She was as tired as I was. And just like me, she couldn’t find her voice to speak up and say how she really felt.

This saga went on and on. Years went by, of me using and abusing my body. September of 2015 came, and I proudly showed up to my first appointment at the doctors, telling her excitedly I was no longer exercising. It took a lot of work and effort for me mentally, to give up this obsession and addiction. I would go through periods of time where I was exercising obsessively, prior to September. It was an all or nothing thing for me. I either did it, or I didn’t. Even a short bike ride could be triggering. My eating disorder would tell me I exercised yesterday, so to feel OK about today, I needed to exercise again. 

It was so freeing for me to “give up” exercise. I now encourage my friends in recovery to try it, because they don’t know what they are missing out on. Yes, it hurts at first. No, it is not easy. I suggest finding something to occupy that time in your day when you would usually work out. If you have to, begin slowly and gently introducing the idea to yourself, perhaps starting a yoga practice, or walking at a slow pace.

Above all, be gentle with your body. Last night I decided to go for a walk, and I told myself I would be gentle. If I felt like running, I would allow it, but nothing too straining. It felt so good to know I didn’t “have” to exert myself if I didn’t want to. I was doing this exercise in what was the right mindset for me. There was no guilt involved. No shame or anxiety. I am free.

Originally published: July 21, 2016
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