Enjoying Exercise Vs. Exercise Addiction

  Jan 9, 2019  |  #Intuitive Eating

Exercising to feel the difference is one of the principles of intuitive eating. I talk with clients about this, especially since I have many runners coming in to see me. Movement often comes up in nutrition counseling, and I like to evaluate whether someone is exercising out of enjoyment or if it seems more like an exercise addiction.

I’m not qualified to give exercise prescriptions since I’m not a personal trainer. Instead, the reason it comes up is because I want to know about a client’s relationship to exercise. How do they view it? Why do they do it? Is it enjoyable? What does an exercise addition look like?

There are a few pillars to determine if you are exercising out of enjoyment or out of compulsion. To me, the bottom line question to ask is, are you doing this because you want to be doing this, or are you doing it because you feel like you have to be doing it?

If it’s the former, great. If it’s the latter, exercise (or the type of exercise) may not be serving you right now. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t serve you in the future, but you want to first work on repairing your relationship with exercise.

How do you know if you're exercising out of enjoyment rather than compulsion and force? Here are some signs.

Exercising Out of Enjoyment Vs. a Compulsion to Exercise

We all know that exercise is good for us, for the most part. It has many positive benefits that I don’t have to list here. But, it can cross into dangerous territory if it becomes an obsession, or a tool to compensate for or validate our eating habits. It can take us away from a mind-body connection that we’ve worked so hard to establish. It can lead to a hyperfocus on calories burned, which can then translate to calories eaten. This post talks about how running can be similar to your relationship with food and how INTENTION matters.

The goal of exercise should never be to burn calories or cancel out food choices. Instead, exercise should be about feeling good. And if you’re interested in more details about balancing intuitive eating and exercise, check out this post.

Exercise should enhance the mind-body connection

Exercise shouldn’t confuse it or dysregulate our mind and body. If your body wants rest, forcing it to exercise is not enhancing the mind-body connection, instead it veers more towards exercise addiction. If your choice of movement is not boosting your endorphins, putting you in a good mood, and enhancing the connection between your mood, mind and body, then it’s probably time to try something else.

However, if you find that exercise helps you be in tune with your body, great! Some telltale signs of this: You can vary your workout based on how you feel (fatigue, soreness, tightness), you think more clearly after exercise, you feel more like yourself after exercise, and you enjoy the things that go along with exercise (social connection, achieving non-aesthetic goals).

How do you know if you're exercising out of enjoyment rather than compulsion and force? Here are some signs.

You can look at exercise with flexibility, not rigidity

Just as our food and calorie need vary by the day, so should our exercise. We should consider the “gray” parts and nuance of exercise. It’s far from black and white. There are so many forms of movement available to our bodies, similar to the abundance and variety of food choices. Engaging in a variety of forms of exercise is good for us, rather than relying on one type alone.

Do you feel guilty if you don’t exercise every day? Do you feel anxious and uncomfortable if you’re not moving a certain amount? These are questions worth deciphering and breaking down with a therapist and/or professional.

If we only look at exercise as a vehicle for burning calories or a way to eat more food, then we’re missing nearly all of the benefits of exercise.

Exercise should alleviate mental and physical stress

Exercise is a stressor on our bodies. In some situations, that stress can be a positive thing. In other situations, it can contribute to an already stressed out body and can exacerbate symptoms, both mentally and physically. Compulsive exercise can increase the risk of injury, increase stress hormones, cause more mental anxiety and a poorer mood. While exercise can enhance our mood in some situations, if exercise is the only way to manage our emotions, it can be a stressor in our life.

Signs of overexercise include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Inadequate recovery
  • Weaker immune system
  • Increased risk of injury
  • Poor appetite (–> This can lead to so many problems I will address in a future post)
  • Decreased performance

When we exercise out of enjoyment, however, we decrease stress hormones, increase our mood, amp up our immunity and help promote better sleep.

Provides genuine enjoyment and pleasure, rather than providing pain or acting as a form of punishment.

Does your exercise plan change based on what you ate? Are you trying to burn more calories because you ate dessert last night, or more food yesterday in general? Are you eating more food after a longer workout? Do you have no desire to exercise, but you still find yourself pulling up to the gym (and dreading it) or fitting in that run despite the fact that you hate running? These are all signs of overexercise, compulsive exercise, or just exercising out of force and necessity.

On the flip side, a positive relationship with exercise would look more flexible. For example, maybe it looks like trying a new workout with a friend for the social aspect of it and the enjoyment of moving your body in a new way. Or, going to your favorite workout class each week because you really love the teacher and how you feel after. Or, going out for a run by yourself because you value the alone time and running makes you feel happier and stronger.

How do you know if you're exercising out of enjoyment rather than compulsion and force? What is exercise addiction? Here are some signs.

Exercise is MEANT to be enjoyed, you guys. If you’re not enjoying it, continuing to do it is causing a further disconnect from that mind-body connection.

Exercise is used to rejuvenate the body, not exhaust or deplete it.

Like time with friends, or alone time, exercise fills your cup. It rejuvenates you. At times, it can lead to exhaustion, but chronic exhaustion is a sign that something is not right. If you’re always feeling depleted and not like your old self, it may be time to reevaluate your exercise plan.

For example, many people think running is only worth it if you’re using it to train for something. I wholeheartedly disagree. For me, running is my outlet, my stress relief, my place where I generate ideas and a zest for things. I come out of runs with more creativity than I can find anywhere else. There are so many benefits to exercise when there’s not a rigid plan or ultimate goal in the equation.

Other Signs Of Exercise Addiction and Compulsive Exercise

Do you give up plans with friends and family to stick to an exercise plan? Do you never miss a workout, despite weather, lack of sleep, or feeling sick? If exercise is interfering with significant events and important activities, that is a sign of exercise addiction and compulsive exercise. Similarly, if it is occurring an inappropriate times and despite medical complications and/or injuries, it is likely not appropriate at this time.

While exercise can be a positive thing (see all the reasons above), it can also cause more harm than good. Similar to the idea of, if you’re turning down invitations to eat out with friends and family because you’re anxious about what’s on the menu or can’t stray from your meal plan, that’s a sign of rigid eating. In other words, the opposite of intuitive eating and flexible eating.

Being too rigid with exercise can actually worsen our mood (rather than lifting it up), cause more illness and poorer immunity, lead to more injury and biological problems in our bodies (stress fractures, delayed recovery, extreme fatigue, insomnia and hypothalamic amenorrhea, to name a few).

How to spot the signs of overexercise and exercise addiction, including reduced immunity, poor sleep, poor recovery.

Is exercise black or white? Will you not even consider a workout if it’s not 45 minutes, an hour, or longer? There are a plethora of benefits of short bursts of exercise and movement. Can you look at exercise in the gray? Like intuitive eating, it’s supposed to be flexible and messy. 

If you can’t fathom the idea of a rest day, you are overexercising. Since exercise is a stressor on the body, we need time to recover from the stress induced on the body. Rest is a positive thing. It helps make future workouts stronger, decreases the risk for injury and illness, and improves our mental capacity. Sleep is a great form of restorative rest, it’s how we compile memories and things we learned. Similarly, days off from exercise help make the bones and muscles stronger, as well as flexing our mental strength.

These are just some of the ways to differentiate between exercise and over-exercise.

What specific questions do you have?

What thoughts and feelings does exercise bring up for you?

8 responses to “Enjoying Exercise Vs. Exercise Addiction

  1. I think one thing that’s hard to decipher with exercise is on days where you procrastinate getting out the door. Is it truly because you’re tired or because you’re feeling lazy. I always ask myself if I’ll feel worse later in the day if I don’t run. If the answer is yes then I’m just lazy, if it’s no then it means I need the rest!

    1. I think it’s also important to consider other life circumstances. For example, if you’ve had a busy week workwise, or travel wise and you’ve been feeling stressed or overly tired, then maybe exercise would be exacerbating the fatigue. However, if it’s commonplace to wake up and exercise and you’ve been sleeping well and there are no other risks (illness, injury, compensation for eating, etc), then I think it’s okay to look at it as enjoyment and gathering motivation.

  2. I am very slowly untangling the connection I have between eating and exercising. I used extreme exercise as a way of ‘undoing’ what I ate. Exercise was my antidote to eating. Do you have any experience with this mindset and maybe some helpful ways to address it?

    1. I actually think it may be worth exploring your relationship to food primarily, and uncoupling food, your body and exercise. Some questions to ask yourself, “Am I doing this exercise because it feels good or because I ‘have’ to based on what I ate? Would my food choices stay the same if I wasn’t exercising?” If it’s the latter, I would recommend learning to look at foods neutrally, a main part of intuitive eating. I also have many posts on intuitive eating here:
      https://bucketlisttummy.com/intuitiveeatingexercise/
      https://www.bucketlisttummy.com/?s=intuitive+eating

  3. I have enjoyed growing in strength and stamina with exercise. I love feeling strong. But I have to find a way to remove the desire to be lean through exercise. And am also trying to challenge my 4:50 am wake up. Do I have to get up that early? Can I be consistent in movement in a way that’s better for my whole health? I love the comraderie I’ve developed at the gym but am questioning now the body comparing and shaming I do while there. Wondering if I need a break from that environment to get my head and intentions in the right place.

    1. Hi Claire! Thanks for sharing your reflection with us. A few questions come up for me…Firstly, the fact that you are even questioning since may be a sign that your body needs a little bit of a break. Maybe it’s worth trying to exercise at another time during the day so you can prioritize more sleep. Are there any other forms of movement that you enjoy? Would movement look and feel different for you if there were no body comparing, shaming, or pressure associated with it?

  4. I love how you differentiate this; I think that for a long time I really let exercise be more of a negative stressor and pressured myself to imitate what others did instead of doing what was right for my body. I love the reminder of not making exercise something that is rigid; if it is becoming that then there’s something that’s wrong with your relationship with it. Right now, I’m really treasuring a break off of a lot of running and really loving how weight lifting is helping me get in tune with going slowly, breathing, and truly enjoying the gift of movement from God. Running used to be more of a form of punishment for me especially long runs, but now I truly love running for the sake of the joy and fresh air it brings.

    1. I’m so happy you are tuning in to what your body thinks as joyful right now, Emily. It’s totally okay for that to change over time, too!

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