Signs Your Relationship with Exercise is Unhealthy
Updated: May 9, 2022
By: Abby Emmert M.A.
A large and challenging step of recovery is making peace with exercise. A question I get very often in sessions is, “what does a normal or healthy relationship with exercise look like?”Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this. Every person’s relationship with exercise is different, just like our relationships with food! What I like to do with clients in session is get curious!Curiosity can lead to healing and understanding which is always our goal. Rather than discussing what a clear image of healthy exercise is, we have a conversation about what their relationship with exercise currently looks like. After, we talk about if the characteristics of this relationship are either improving their life or taking away from it. More often than not, a client is coming to me wanting to discuss their relationship with exercise because they have already come to the conclusion that something needs to change! However, there are many times where I broach this conversation with clients because I am noticing characteristics that are problematic- that perhaps they haven’t noticed yet! If you are questioning your relationship with exercise, or want some validation that you are on track for a healthy relationship with movement, I have provided some of the characteristics I see often that are problematic! Please know, this is not a clinical list, nor a concrete example of what unhealthy or healthy exercise looks like! These are just some signs that we see often in our work:
1. It is strict and rigid with no room for the flexibility of normal, daily life.
We know life comes at us with unexpected changes and plans that we have to adapt to! Just like our relationship with food, our relationship with exercise has to be flexible to adapt to the spontaneity of life. If you find yourself tied to a schedule that is unable to change without discomfort or anxiety, you may want to reflect on how this is helping or taking away from your daily life.
2. It’s coming in the way of other relationships you have. People you love or care about may even be noticing and making comments about it.
If you notice that exercise and your routine is starting to come first before relationships, you may be looking at some unhealthy behaviors. If you find yourself canceling plans, leaving events early, or being intolerant to changes in relationships based on your schedule with exercise, your relationship with movement may be getting in the way of you having good, long-lasting relationship. In a lot of cases, clients will tell me that they have loved ones even making comments about their exercise routine ‘kicking up recently’, or their inability to make changes that support their relationships with others. Take these reflections and do some reflecting yourself!
3. You are more focused on the “results” you get from the movement than you are about how your body feels while doing it.
More often than not, we start a type of movement or exercise with a goal in mind. While goals are great to have for self-improvement, they can also be really dangerous when they require us to reach them at all costs. What I encourage clients to focus on is how they feel mentally, emotionally, and physically while engaging in the exercise rather than the physical results they may have set out with.
4. You ignore signs from your body that it needs a break.
If you find yourself ignoring clear signs from your body to take a break, drink some water, or alter an exercise, you are not only teaching your body it may not be able to trust you when it communicates to you, but you are also at a high risk for injury. Our body communicates through sensations. If you feel that ping in your knee, it’s not something you have to “fight through” or “push on” from! Taking a break or modifying movements is a strength because in the end you are strengthening the trust between you and your body! Remember, fighting through pain is not an achievement. Your body is on your side!
5. You have little to no off or rest days.
A lot of the last sign will apply here, as well. It is important to take breaks during movement. It is also critical to take entire days, and even weeks, off to heal. Geek out moment- every time you exercise, your muscles shred slightly as they are pushed. Consistent energy (food!) and rest is important because during that time your body fills back in those muscle tears with protein to build the muscle back stronger! If there is no rest time, your muscles continue to shred with no healing, leading to injury. TAKE DAYS OFF! Your body will love you for it!
6. It is strictly attached to what, how much, or when you eat.
I see very often that exercise is used as a compensatory behavior for eating. What this means is that we can use exercise as a way to compensate, or make up for, what we eat. If you find yourself strictly exercising based on what you ate that day, how much you had, or when you ate, then we have a problem. What we call this is exercise used as punishment or permission. Punishment meaning we use exercise as a punishment for exactly what I listed above, or we use exercise to give us permission to eat based on those things. If you are struggling with exercise attached to food, reach out for help! We are here.
7. You get on the scale before or after the exercise…or both.
Similarly, to the previous sign regarding food, you may find yourself strictly tied to the scale before or after movement. If you are, then we need to have a conversation about your worth, honey! You are so much more than that number on the scale! Remember, the scale doesn’t represent your strength or ability in movement. And movement should not be used according to that number! You deserve better. Practice setting boundaries with the scale, like limiting how often you look (example. 3 times per day instead of 6) or when you look (example. Only before exercising, not after). This way, we can take steps towards disconnecting your relationship with exercise from that metal piece of hell!
8. You are attached to numbers, i.e calories burned, time, weight, or length traveled.
Again, similarly to the last, you may find the scale isn’t the only number you are attached to. Perhaps you have one of those fitness watches or tracker apps that calculates everything about your body during movement. This can be a hard part of your relationship with exercise to address because maybe it’s the only reason you have one….and if you let that go, what would you work out for? Well, movement is SO much more than numbers! Use the same boundaries I listed above for this. Try exercising without your watch for one day, or wear it, but don’t check it until a day later. Creating space between you and a behavior is a great way to disconnect! P.S. the calculations those watches and apps give you is an estimate! Don’t get too tied to it!
9. You wouldn’t engage in the exercise if it didn’t change your body.
Last, but not least, my favorite question for clients: If you knew engaging in this movement or exercise wouldn’t change your body physically, would you still want to do it? You would be shocked to see how often I get, “oh hell, no.” This, to me, is the biggest red flag of them all. Movement is so much more than just changing the way your body looks. Yes, it can and often does. But if this is the SOLE reason you engage in exercise, what happens when your body stops changing? Because it will. Or maybe it wont change the way you want. What then? It leaves you frustrated, feeling ashamed, and often blaming yourself with self-hatred thoughts like, “If I didn’t skip Monday last week,” or, “If I had tried harder.”
You are not to blame. The idea that the goal of movement is to control your body is part of the systemic oppression we face daily about our bodies: We teach that you can in fact change your body. That you SHOULD change your body, regardless of your means or access. And if you don’t obey, we encourage others to shame and humiliate you. Yeah, we live in a capitalistic world of wellness, diets, and exercise. But this isn’t hopeless. I promise.
We teach clients everyday about breaking free from these controlling norms. We teach acceptance and freedom, autonomy and individuality. You have the choice to change these characteristics. You just have to decide you want to. And we are here to help! You are not alone.
To work on your relationship with exercise, try this skill:
List out all of the reasons why you enjoy movement. List what you like about the different forms you participate in or the way you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically before and after
exercise. Next, list out anything that you DON’T like about exercise or movement. Another way to think of this list is anything that movement or exercise takes from you or requires you to sacrifice. For example, maybe you enjoy movement but you are on a strict schedule which requires you to miss out on dinners with friends that you’re often invited to. Finally, pick one bullet from the list of “sacrifices” and brainstorm ways you can adjust your movement to improve this. Perhaps you cut down exercising one day so you have a night open to see friends. Small steps can include how long you engage in the movement for, how often you engage in it, the type you engage in, or what “results” you are looking for! Try adjusting your movement for 2-3 weeks using this new approach and see if you notice any differences. Come back to your list and try addressing the next “sacrifice” on it when you are ready!
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