How I Overcame My Addiction To Exercise

Let's talk exercise.

It is too boring and obvious for words, but whatever you do, however you do it, exercise is vital for your optimal health and happiness. Human bodies were designed for movement and activity; without it they droop, become uneven & collapse under their own weight. They ache as neglected muscles cannot support the skeleton properly, and so the body begins to compensate in disastrous ways. Joints wear thin with overwork, and without exercise the heart and internal organs grow sluggish... even worse, you never experience the euphoria brought about by the release of the bodies own natural, 'happy drug'.

However I believe that all the 'detrimental effects of not exercising' can also be experienced exactly the same for over exercising.... You see as well as movement and activity the body was also designed for resting. Exercise can be inexpressibly triggering for eating disorder sufferers & the ability we are blessed with to move becomes an addiction and an obsession with calorie burning and weight loss rather than what exercise is truly about: health, stamina, strength, fitness and overall happiness.

Exercise can help our bodies to feel rejuvenated however over exercising only ever ends with our bodies feeling ill.

In my worst times of exercise addiction it correlated to my worst times with anorexia. I would wake up at 5am to fit in my x-amount of hours schedule at the gym to spend on the treadmill until I reached x-amount of strides- at times I felt like I was an already dead floating body who only worked by habit and by 'robot abilities'... there was nothing human about me. After the gym (which I eventually got banned from- however refused & it was the police to drag me from the machine) -no exaggeration, I then would continue my exercise filled day for a x-amount of hours walk around the village until my knees would collapse on my doorstep. The only time I rested was when I slept, sitting down was a big black cross in my rule book.

I believe exercise is good for you- but in extreme it is everything BUT good for you. 

For obvious reasons at this point in my life I wasn't allowed to dance so my passion for moving was only calorie driven... As everyone is probably aware I love dancing and anorexia took that away from me.

Dancing was possibly an environmental element of why I became anorexic but it was also the driving force to why I choose to recover. To become anorexic it takes a certain genetic and personality type that you are born with. Not ‘anyone’ can become anorexic. Of course it can effect any gender, age, race, ethnicity, etc but it can only really effect one type of person - a driven, competitive, creative, intelligent individual. These personality traits bode well for many aspects of life, but again these traits can also foreshadow an individual that will push to the extremes and it is this that then becomes dangerous.

I wanted to pick at what I used to do because if I was to compare it to my amazing day today I think it can highlight the beauty of recovery. Today I danced but now I am resting... Both dancing and resting were impossible for me to do just two years ago. I am so proud of myself as I have never felt healthier. I have finally found the balance between RESTING and EXERCISING.

How how how? How was it that I came to find the balance and how was it I overcame my over-exercising?

Here I have composed a list of tips that I practiced and thought when I was combatting my addiction to exercise (remember these are the things I DID and that I FOUND HELPED ME - but everyone is different and will respond to things differently): 

1) I joined a gym for the classes (and ONLY the classes)

I used to spend hours a day in the gym on ONE MACHINE and I knew that this was the problem. I knew that it was the machines that had all the numbers about strides, distance and calories, and it was those machines that I would stand upon like a robot ticking away the hours in my day. But I also knew that the classes took place right next door to the machines and they looked full of fun. No one was signed to a single machine and it was a social experience at the same time.

I took it upon myself to tell an instructor about my exercise addiction struggle and about my idea to take classes led by him instead. He thought it was a brilliant idea and a massive stepping stone in the right direction. He gave me one rule and one rule only: Do NO MORE than what the class is doing. And once the class is over… LEAVE and nourish your body in a necessary way but don’t you dare walk into that gym afterwards. Come for the class and only the class.

What this did to my relationship with exercise was better than I expected and it all happened very quickly. They say it takes 4-6 weeks to break a habit and 12-16 weeks to break an addiction but after just my first class at the gym I already felt the changes. I wanted to choose the classes with the element of socialising and empowering one another to do better, run faster, have better form, more power and to not give up. And it changed from being “not giving up (doing more hours)” to “not giving up (trying your best)” - which meant I needed rest. 

2) I stopped exercising alone

I can tend to get in my head a little (okay, A LOT) when I’m exercising alone. I’ll overthink things and my ED brain takes over and completely ruins any enjoyment of the activity.

In a dance class I am NEVER alone. Even if it’s a one to one class with my teacher, I will still have my teachers company. In 99% of my dance or fitness classes I am blessed with the atmosphere of lots of others and in most classes the people around me are my closest friends. Having just one person with you can help keep you in your wise mind and rule out your ED mind. 

3) I learnt to play again

We tend to forget that exercise doesn’t always have to be running or lifting weights. Things like tennis, badminton, football, basketball and dance classes (especially) are great ways to move your body too. 

Doing a more playful, recreational form of movement can be easier than the repetitive motion in running, swimming, or biking that may be deeply rooted in your eating disorder. 

4) I took my time

Rome was not built in a day. And recovery is far-far-far from linear.

Give yourself grace and start slow. Although moving your body is healthy, there isn’t only one clear cut way to do that. What society pushes is not always correct. Do what’s best for you, always do what’s best for you. 

I wanted to share this with you all because I know that there are people out there staring at their trainers and only ever sliding them on because of their feelings of fear rather than their feelings of excitement. There are warriors at a loss for what the next steps are in their recovery to exercise addiction which is why I included my 4 tips.

And I want you to know that I’m right there with you, Warrior. We can do this together.

 Photography by: Miro Arva

Photography by: Miro Arva

Margherita Barbieri