Recovering from exercise addiction is no small task, but it is possible when you find the fun in moving again.
Statistics show that exercise addiction affects approximately 4% of school athletes, 8–9% of fitness enthusiasts, and 21% of those with an eating disorder (1).
The condition often exists alongside an eating disorder or body image issue, and sometimes substance abuse. Fortunately, it is curable with time, patience, commitment, and support.
Here are 10 tips on how you can mend your relationship with exercise and find joy in movement again.
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Vocalize your feelings
Try not to sit alone with your thoughts. If you’re experiencing anxiety around exercise, feeling stressed about a particular issue, or need help feeling comfortable, attempt to communicate that to someone you trust.
As lonely as this journey of healing your relationship with exercise might feel, you don’t have to go through alone. If you need a friend to ride to the gym with you, ask them. If you’re struggling to fill the void that cutting out constant exercise has left, communicate that.
Remember that no one knows how to help you unless they know what you’re going through, so keep your loved ones in the loop.
They might not understand how you feel, but they can offer emotional support. Even when you get frustrated with them wanting you to control your addiction, in the future you’ll likely look back and appreciate what they did.
Distract yourself when you feel the urge to exercise for the wrong reasons
When you feel an urge to exercise for the wrong reasons — like feeling a need to compensate after a meal or while having a bad body image day — find a way to distract your mind.
Distractions can include offering to wash the dishes after a family meal, watching a comfort movie, Facetiming a pal, or meditating. They can be a really useful technique for managing those loud voices pushing you to work out, when actually, what’s best for you is rest.
Endorphins released in the brain of someone with an exercise addiction create feelings of achievement or pleasure following a workout, but the endorphin rush happens so frequently and intensely that the brain begins to downregulate endorphin production (2).
That means the comedown as you stop exercising intensely can feel draining.
Exercise with people you love
Exercise doesn’t have to just be about working out. It can be a social bonding experience with people you love.
Whether it’s a countryside walk or following along with a virtual fitness class together, make exercising enjoyable again by involving people who help reduce your anxiety, crack jokes with you, and have deep conversations.
Working out can be a time to make memories — more than a time to burn calories.
If you’re focused on being present in others’ company, you’re not preoccupied with how your movements could be altering your body, what you might be doing wrong, or how you look while exercising.
Do what you enjoy
Finding exercise that works well for your body is important.
Avoid moving in ways that make you feel bad or grumpy. Having the best technique means nothing if you hate every moment of your workout and feel depleted afterward. Find forms of exercise that make you feel energized, alive, and appreciative of what your body can do.
Remember: Working out isn’t solely about becoming a sweaty mess, nor is it about looking perfect or having the best technique. It’s far healthier to try a dance class with a friend and be utterly terrible at it, but still have a great time, rather than spend an hour in the gym squatting for your life.
We’ve been conditioned to believe exercising should be something we dread, but that isn’t true — fitness can be fun!
Exercise for you, no one else
When you’re choosing to exercise, question who you’re doing it for. Are you exercising because you want to move and it makes you feel good? Or are you doing it to alter your body to fit beauty standards, compete with your gym buddy friends, or “make up” for something you ate?
If it’s for any of the latter, it’s a good idea to step back and reevaluate the purpose exercise is serving in your life. Fitness should be a personal experience; never harm yourself in an attempt to look like another person or meet unreasonable or unsafe expectations.
A key aspect of this recovery process is recognizing and understanding your triggers, so if you feel compelled to exercise for the wrong reasons, you may want to work with a professional therapist to delve into why and where the feeling comes from.
You’ll then get better at interrupting your unhealthy urge to exercise and develop better coping techniques for your emotions. Ultimately, exercising doesn’t make those deeper issues disappear. It only buries them and acts as a superficial coping strategy for complex life issues.
Start small and increase gradually
This one is especially crucial if a healthcare professional has advised you to stop exercising altogether for a while.
When you embark on the journey of healing your relationship with exercise and you feel truly ready to start moving again, it’s best not to dive in headfirst.
Start small with what makes you feel comfortable rather than heading for high intensity workouts every day of the week. The point of overcoming exercise addiction is learning that exercise can benefit you in several ways and serve many purposes; it isn’t always about going to extremes.
This is not only important for allowing yourself to get back into the swing of things, but it can also prevent damage to your physical health. Compulsive exercising can cause severe damage to your mental well-being by creating stress and interfering with social activities.
It can also damage your physical health by affecting your organs, joints, and muscle mass, make you prone to injury, and cause menstrual complications. It’s vital that you listen to your healthcare provider’s advice.
Release the pressure you’ve put on yourself
If your relationship with exercise has been toxic for a long time, you’ll likely feel guilty or unsettled when your routine is interrupted. Particularly following long periods without exercise, your desire to work out could be even stronger than before.
However, it’s OK to go multiple days without a workout! That’s allowed, promise. Developing self-control is an important part of overcoming exercise addiction, and recognizing when it’s time to slow down is crucial. Rest days are just as important, if not more so, than days spent exercising.
Try not to pressure yourself into working out, especially if you aren’t feeling up to it. Workouts are never compulsory, and one special thing you can learn in this healing process is that you always have the freedom to choose when you do it.
If you plan to head to the gym one morning but don’t want to leave your bed when your alarm sounds, that’s fine! Roll over and enjoy that extra hour of sleep! If you’ve scheduled a run but friends invite you to a last-minute brunch, head to the brunch! It’s fine for your workout routines to be flexible, and there’s never a punishment for skipping a day.
Trust your body
Learning to trust your body is one of the most valuable life lessons any of us can acquire.
Following an exercise addiction, this can be a real challenge since you’ll be used to overriding the signals your body sends. However, understanding the communication from your body is a skill that will make life so much better and healthier.
When your body is telling you to rest, that isn’t a sign of your body being weak or encouragement for you to test its limits. It means your body needs time to recharge so it can be strong the next day.
Human bodies aren’t robots, they will tire. They require us to be gentle with them. This means slowing down when you’re becoming overworked and pressing pause when your energy levels are low.
Your body knows its own needs best, so trust that by skipping a workout. You’re preserving the precious vessel that carries you through life and maintaining the healthiest version of it. I can assure you, your body isn’t asking you to skip spin class because it hates you. Quite the opposite.
Practice healthier attitudes toward movement
Curing an exercise addiction is a physical journey, but it’s even more of a psychological one. It’s one thing to switch up your fitness regimen, but you have to do the work on the inside, too. This means shifting your mental approach to fitness.
Exercise is detrimental if it’s used to punish our bodies. Instead, use exercise as a way of feeling grateful for your body’s abilities and celebrating its power. Developing a more positive attitude toward movement is something that happens over time, but it’s certainly possible.
Challenge those toxic thoughts about exercise existing only as a means of “burning off” or “earning” calories, or sculpting your body into an impossible shape.
Exercising and eating should exist peacefully alongside one another — not be at odds with one another. Movement isn’t a prerequisite for eating; we need to eat regardless of whether movement is in the cards that day.
I know it might feel impossible to develop a healthy, balanced relationship with fitness if you’ve battled addiction, but acknowledging the problem and committing to a new mindset about movement and its role in your life is a great place to start.
Find the fun in fitness, rely on the support of your trusted family and friends, and commit to doing the internal work on difficult issues. Then, you may be surprised to find you’re healthier than you’ve ever been before.
Emily Bashforth is a writer and journalist specializing in mental well-being and has been featured in a variety of online and print publications. Much of her work focuses on her own experiences with mental illness, specifically eating disorders. Emily campaigns to raise awareness of issues affecting people with EDs and the importance of equal access to eating disorder treatment.