Compulsive exercise, exercise addiction, and exercise bulimia are disorders in which exercise is used as a symptom to eradicate, purge or burn calories. In addition, excessive movement is used as a coping mechanism to quell anxiety and to numb emotions.
The more exercise an individual does, the more heightened cortisol becomes in a brain, increasing the likelihood of irritability, anxiety, sleeplessness and well…more need for exercise.
This, unfortunately, exacerbates the pattern creating a damaging and destructive relationship to movement. Exercise disorders are among the most challenging of disorders to contend with as they bridge eating disorders, body image issues, compulsive tendencies, and addictions.
As in most of the work I do, I look to an integrated, holistic framework to treat this disorder. Our beings are made of multiple layers: the physical body, our mind, and a subtle energy layer. To successfully treat exercise issues one must work with all 3 parts, the body, mind, and spirit.
In order to truly recover from exercise disorders, one must literally retrain the body to accommodate a normal and safe amount of exercise. This includes rebalancing metabolic, biochemical and neurochemical aspects, as well as creating a sense of trust that the body exist without excessive exercise.
As these 3 layers, body, mind and spirit release themselves from the shackles of compulsive exercise they can form a new, healthy and intimate relationship with movement. I have lovingly come to call this process of retraining, ‘Sit, Stay, Heal’.
Sit: The compulsive exerciser needs to cease the movement that is incessant. It is important for an individual in recovery to understand that the first step towards healing is to STOP movement. Rest is crucial for the body to thrive. This is the ‘sit’ phase.
Believe it or not, excessive exercise slows down metabolism.
Calories expended supersede calories coming in. Adrenal glands are strained and drained. Muscles get adapted to output. The heart gets more efficient. Basically, everything slows down.
Metabolism can only be reset with ample amounts of rest for muscle recovery along with proper nutrition. Many times when someone who has been over exercising stops they feel physically worse before they feel better. This is the chemical energy crash of the adrenal system. These glands secrete adrenaline and cortisol and this type of chemical energy can trick someone into believing they have boundless energy. When exercise stops, they feel the fatigue caused by this crash. Rest allows this system to regulate and for the body to begin to re-calibrate and utilize energy in a more balanced way.
Stay: Once the individual has stopped exercising they need to learn how to ‘stay’ with whatever comes up. Many times, exercise is a way of busying oneself from the stillness needed to process thoughts, emotions, and memories. In addition, movement can serve to anesthetize emotional intensity.
As a result, when individuals initially stop extreme forms of movement they may encounter irritability, anxiety, mental and physical fatigue. This is most often due to an overstimulated adrenal system discussed above. Riding this wave is crucial and proves to be very challenging. Finding distracting activities can prove helpful to move you past this phase. Breathwork, meditation, and other mindful techniques can strengthen one’s ‘stillness’ muscle. Working with a therapist to deepen process can further support an individual’s efforts to be with feelings.
There is a fine line between working out to relieve stress, and needing to work out in order to feel less stressed.
Staying aware of this edge is the key to a healthy and balanced relationship with exercise. Learning to tolerate what comes up in the body whether it is, physical sensations, thoughts, feelings or trauma is one of the most significant learnings individuals recovering from exercise disorders can experience. In addition, as one finds their center they can meet their thoughts and emotions from a new grounded perspective.
Heal: Healing occurs in the space that is created by ‘sitting’ and ‘staying’. It is here that an individual can find peace and acceptance and learn to trust their body. Once an individual has accrued ample time away from the exercise that became compulsive there is an opportunity to create a new relationship with movement. However, as I like to say, ‘with movement comes responsibility’.
Some individuals know that they can never return to the form of exercise they were addicted to. Others create safety rules around exercise so that they can stay accountable. Some realize that the form of movement they were once so attached to is no longer or had never been enjoyable and find other ways to move their body. This is a personal and sacred decision. What is needed more than any other skill in this phase is honesty. It can be very easy to rationalize the amount or type of exercise to include unhealthy patterns.
A healed relationship with exercise means movement is used to enhance vitality and holistic wellness. The decision of whether or not to work out comes from a grounded and aware place in which an individual is wanting some form of movement in their body not needing it. It means rest days happen with ease and a respect for restoration.
A healed relationship with exercise means proper nourishment is given to a body regardless of whether this body has performed activity.
It is one where self-care trumps vanity. Finally, it provides an intimate connection with the most amazing miracle that exists on the planet. When exercise becomes a moving prayer of gratitude for the body, healing has occurred.
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