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Ending A Toxic Relationship With Exercise

[Trigger Warning] Overexercising

Buckle up because I’ve got a bit of a long one for you this week...

Exercise has been my best friend and my worst enemy. It's that sneaky little piece of your eating disorder that masquerades as a healthy habit but secretly has ulterior motives. Think Regina George in Mean Girls.

Up until I graduated from high school I spent a large portion of my time as a competitive dancer. I didn't realize it but I was actually quite active. It wasn't until I went to college that I developed any type of relationship with exercise, at least not consciously. I got a gym membership and went with friends but it was never anything serious. More like a social outlet.

Fast forward a couple years when I started to gain weight while being in a toxic relationship and that’s when things really started to change. In a couple months time none of my clothes fit (again Regina George comes to mind) and I was ready to do something about it. Finally freeing myself from a bad situation I started running in the opposite direction of what I had been doing, which wasn't much more than eating and drinking since I had just turned 21.

I began working out daily and quickly started to see the number on the scale go down. Little by little I built up the courage to enter the big scary weight room where guys with arms bigger than my head were grunting and sweating everywhere. I was a fish out of water but I was determined to get “back into shape” (whatever that actually means).

If I go back to that time, my camera roll is filled with endless pictures of myself in the mirror. No, they were not selfies and no I didn't think I looked good in any of them. They were pictures I obsessively took to compare my progress and analyze every bit of my body.

And none of them were good enough.

I spent more and more time at the gym. So much so, I remember telling my mom I had no idea how I was ever going to get a real job because I didn't have time. You can imagine her reaction.

Social opportunities were frequently turned down because they conflicted with the time I scheduled in my imaginary calendar and I simply could not reschedule my workouts for the whims of others. Regardless of my physical or mental state I would drag myself to that smelly building and put in my time like it was a job that I hated.

But by this point I was hooked. ED had me by his clutches and I was a slave to the gym. Unfortunately I was receiving praise from everyone for how “good” I looked and I felt like my hard work was finally paying off. Having a body everyone envied became part of my new identity and I truly believed I would get “fat” if I didn't maintain the level of fitness I had come to normalize.

I specifically remember having a breakdown, crying and everything, one Saturday when a family event came up and I couldn't fit my workout in. I was dragging myself there most days but in my mind I had no choice. I had to go. There was no other option.

After attempting to convince my treatment team that I was perfectly fine and the X amount of hours I was accustomed to was not insane I finally had to give in. I agreed to cut back (a little) but I knew in the back of my mind I wasn't going to change much. I was stubborn and besides, they didn't know what they were talking about, they were just trying to make me fat. Insert eye roll.

Two years went by maintaining my strict regimen before I got in a car accident that would force me to stop. There were no serious injuries but I was banged up a bit and my chiropractor advised me I would need to rest for two weeks. Shockingly I felt relieved. Like I was finally able to give myself permission to take a break. Why I was okay with his advice and not that of my treatment team is beyond me but like I said, I’m stubborn.

As I have gotten further along in the process of recovery I have been able to let go of my unhealthy relationship with exercise and reestablish a much more healthy one. But I am human and the same obsessive habits that once took me down a rabbit hole are still there for me to fight with every now and then.

Exercise can be euphoric. It has the ability to ease anxiety and lift up your spirit. But I have to say, there can be a dangerous side as well. One that feeds on perfection and constant improvement. One that lives by the mantra “better, faster, stronger.” One that society has normalized and so often celebrates. It’s a slippery slope once you start heading down it and digging yourself out feels like an impossible task.

Understanding what a healthy relationship with exercise looks like is so important because unhealthy habits have been so widely accepted. Below are some of the traits of both healthy and unhealthy exercise habits that I have experienced and wanted to share.

Unhealthy Relationship:

  • Feeling extreme anxiety or guilt for missing a day. I literally couldn't skip my workout without getting severe anxiety.

  • Exercising to burn calories or to earn your food. I began thinking about food in terms of how long I would have to exercise to burn it off.

  • Exercising when you're injured or sick. Like I said, skipping wasn't really an option.

  • Feeling like you are forcing yourself to exercise. The monotony was brutal and most days it was just something I had to get out of the way before I could start my day.

  • Feeling guilty for taking a rest day or reducing your workout. Not feeling like it was never an option.

  • Exercising because you hate your body or you're using it as a punishment. I would pick out all of the areas on my body that disgusted me and focus on targeting those areas especially.

  • Feeling inadequate if you don’t exercise for a set amount of time. I had a set amount of time I felt I needed to workout otherwise it didn’t count in my mind.

Healthy Relationship:

  • Exercising because you enjoy how it makes you feel. I never thought I would say this but I actually enjoy running now. I’m insanely slow but something I once despised I now really enjoy because I no longer force myself to do it.

  • Allowing yourself to skip a day without feeling guilty or anxious. Some days I just don't feel like it or I don't have time. I try to be kinder to myself on those days and realize the world won't end if i don’t squeeze a workout in.

  • Allowing your body to recover when you are injured. This is HUGE. I have gained so much muscle and strength by cutting back because I was over doing it all the time and never had a chance to recover.

  • Appreciating your body and its ability to move. Not everyone has the luxury to be active. Not to preach at you but the next time you find negative thoughts creeping in, pause and thank your body for allowing you the option to move.

  • Being flexible with where and how you exercise. I currently don’t have a gym membership (still quarantining) which has allowed me to explore new ways to be active.

  • Acknowledging movement comes in a variety of forms. Moving your body, regardless of what you are doing is still movement. There is no right or wrong way to move so find something you enjoy.

  • Exercising because you love and care for yourself. My mindset is the biggest difference in how I approach exercise now.

Okay, okay, ramble over! But anyways, check in with yourself from time to time and be mindful of how you are feeling. Life is short and forcing yourself to go to the gym day after day is no way to live.

If you have thoughts on this topic, leave me a comment below, I would love to chat. Be sure to connect with The Cheeky Life on social and stay up to date by subscribing below! XO

Disclaimer: Please note, all information on The Cheeky Life is not intended as medical advice or as a substitute for professional care. The intention of this blog is to connect with the community and share my personal experiences with mental health, eating disorders, and life in general. All opinions are my own.

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