Exercise: an OCD

During our illnesses, Laura and I have both at some point experienced exercise addiction. Exercise addiction often comes hand in hand with an eating disorder; be it to burn calories, change the way your body looks, or channel your emotions through an outlet. Working in the fitness industry, I can see a lot of undiagnosed exercise addicts who are a slave to cardio or lift weights 7 days a week. They come in and run on the same treadmill for miles every day even when it’s a beautiful day to jog outside, or they never take rest days because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they weren’t at the gym. Even personal trainers over train. But you don’t have to look severely underweight or anorexic to suffer from this type of OCD, which is probably why it is overlooked. Because exercise is healthy, right?

I’ve always been sporty. Since I started high school I was on every school team, and I was pretty good at them. I developed an interest for fitness around 16 when I started trying out some classes and was old enough to join a gym, which is when a slight fetish for muscularity developed. I enjoyed being and looking athletic, I wanted abs so I would do sit ups in the evenings. But there was no compulsion to exercise, if I ever missed a training session or workout the thought of weight or calories never even crossed my mind and I didn’t beat myself up over it. When I went to university however, this started to change. I was scared of gaining freshers weight and tried my best to maintain my healthy lifestyle, so I started running before or after lectures and I also joined the university gym. Being surrounded by so many intellectuals at university made me feel under pressure to study hard. I had always been a high achiever up until then but all of a sudden I was just an average student surrounded by so many privately educated and wealthy people. Not making the firsts team at basketball reinforced the feeling of not being good enough, and I was determined that if my skills weren’t good enough, then at least my fitness would be. So I worked out harder, did more running. With all the exercise I started to lose a little weight, and this spurred me on to keep exercising but also restrict my diet to ‘clean’ foods. On top of these stresses, I was also feeling pressured to be a smaller size and to be the ‘perfect’ girlfriend. If that wasn’t enough, my long term relationship at the time was deteriorating very quickly. With all of this going on, exercise was my answer. It distracted me from my relationship, it channelled my self-fruststration at not feeling ‘good enough’, and it was making me smaller and thinner.

It only took a few months of this way of thinking and behaving until the habits were engrained in me. Once this very rigid exercise routine was created, it was hard to break and I started to feel anxious if anything ever tried to come between me and my exercise. I had to run every day, if not I would be very irritable, angry, couldn’t concentrate and wouldn’t eat much. Not ideal when you’re trying to study and write essays. After I finished my first year of university I looked remarkably different and all my friends and family were trying to get me to eat more and exercise less. I didn’t listen of course. I thought I looked better for it, and I enjoyed the sense of achievement at having self-control and power over my diet and body. But it came to a point when even I knew that something was wrong- I couldn’t see my boyfriend until I had done my run, I couldn’t eat with him unless it was salad, I couldn’t meet up with my friends spontaneously because I hadn’t planned what I could eat. If it interfered with my workout I would be overwhelmed with anxiety and be very short tempered. My body was tired, my mind was becoming very irritable, and I was a bitch to be around. But routine, habit, and the fear of what would happen to my body if I didn’t work out made me keep doing it to myself, even if I didn’t want to. One day I drove to the gym and was so tired and so bored of my routine I sat in the car and cried, knowing that something inside of me would still make me drag my body inside. I couldn’t say no, I had to do what my mind told me. It was taking over my life. My daily routine was structured around my exercise and when or what I could eat.

When I started my recovery from anorexia is naturally when I had to reassess my relationship with exercise. I was told by doctors not the exercise at all, which was a hard bullet to take. I cried and cried, not knowing how I was ever going to manage it, and more to the point not wanting to. I was even restricted to how much I could walk which felt incredibly demoralising… I still considered myself an athlete, despite being severely underweight. It was at that point when I found my former trainer Leon to help me recover and control my exercise for me, because I knew I didn’t have the will power to do it myself. We trained once a week, sometimes if I was struggling I would swim a few times as well. I had one walk a day, but the rest of the time I was usually around the home and sedentary. This time was one of the hardest parts of my life, but it also taught me how to be patient and to value other aspects of my life instead. I had to find other ways to fill my time instead of exercise, so I read, studied and painted. Every day I had my goal in mind; if I can just see this through and get to the weight they want me to be, I can eat what I want and exercise when I want and no one can tell me what to do. Not to lose weight, but to be independent and free from constant observation. My year in recovery taught me the most valuable life lessons which shape who I am today and have made me a stronger person. I learnt how to be patient and how to be consistent with my efforts. I learnt to appreciate the smaller things, such as exercise itself. Being limited to one workout a week meant that I truly enjoyed every second of it and looked forward to my next one. I learnt to value myself and my body, how to nourish it and respect it by not working it into the ground.

Even today, I try to limit myself to 4-5 weight lifting sessions a week because otherwise I could do it every day. I love the sense of accomplishment of training hard and truly enjoy it, the fact that it shapes and strengthens my body is just a bonus. But exercise is a massive stress on the body and I also know that my body needs recovery time. It is important to have a well structured and balanced exercise regime allowing adequate recovery between sessions and total rest days, otherwise you could actually be sabotaging your fitness goals. Your weight loss may plateau, your strength could reduce, and you could develop chronic fatigue which has repercussions such as insomnia, change in appetite and a weaker immune system so you’re more likely to catch a cold.

We live in a society which makes us feel that in order to be fit, healthy and look good we have to go to the gym and there are huge pressures to look a certain way which all contributes to the OCD of exercise. I always find the concept of the gym so funny when I’m training weights… I’m just sitting in a room watching people obsessively lift heavy objects. They come in day in and day out to lift things up and down because they think it will make them happier or fill an empty gap in their life. The pressures to look good used to be associated with women, but I’d say that this epidemic effects men more so. Don’t get me wrong, training can bring so much to your health as well as great sense of achievement and accomplishment. But there’s a fine line between being passionate about something because of the enjoyment it brings, and being obsessive about it because you feel you have to and need to do it.

There’s more to life than the four walls of a gym. Get outside, play sports, read, learn, be creative, eat out, see friends, get drunk… because exercise and the gym can’t fulfil everything for you. Taking a rest isn’t being lazy, it’s listening to your body and respecting it. Sometimes it is what we don’t do which is more important.