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Eating Disorder Recovery Exercise / Compulsive Movement Other ED Behaviours Rewiring / Neuroplasticity

What Is Compulsive Movement?

What constitutes compulsive movement?

Formal exercise is easy to identify as something that we should not do in eating disorder recovery.

Putting trainers on, going for a run, swimming, going to the gym and formal sports are all blatantly understood as being ‘exercise’ by joe public.

What about lighter exercise though? The ‘well it is good for me and my doctor even says it is ok’ forms of movement?


Walking, yoga, pilates etc that are seen as being not only good for the body but great for our mental health too?

Well – yes – great for the mental health of someone who has not got an eating disorder with compulsive movement attached!

I have done ‘recovery’ in the past where I was encouraged to stop exercise and I did BUT I carried on walking, I started yoga, I replaced the gym with swimming and each time these trade ins were supported by health professionals who should have been helping.

In making these trade ins I was just negotiating with the eating disorder: swapping one compulsion for another.

I was filled with dread at not taking that walk at 12pm, I could not go a day without doing yoga, swimming became faster and more lengths and it was all crippling mentally as it was so compulsive that if anything in life tried to interrupt it or if I tried to take ‘time out’, the anxiety peaked.

This is disabling stuff. Even if it is not physically damaging (which it very likely is if not being fuelled adequately), mentally it is crippling if you cannot see a friend because you have to fit in a yoga session or if you still push yourself to go for a swim despite having flu.

Even sneakier though is the real low level stuff.
Standing when you could sit, housework, gardening, using the upstairs loo when there’s one downstairs, taking stairs and not the lift, jigging your leg… keeping moving in any way as stillness is so hard.

The lower level movement is also often things only we know we are doing – things we need to stop doing to break the compulsion if we want to recover but which are ingrained and so hard to identify.

Sometimes to be sure you are beating it, it’s easier to cease any unnecessary movement.. If in doubt, why risk it as if this stuff is not addressed, well – we don’t recover…

Yes, it’s that serious!

**Edited to add in 2022 (now that I have recovered)…. now, from a position of someone who has made it out the other side of compulsive movement, I can say that when you stop, gradually it gets easier to stay stopped and some day, you realise that there is no longer a drive to keep moving or to keep active. You find you can sit all day and keep occupied in all sorts of far more interesting ways and both mentally and physically, you are so much healthier for it.**

I now work as a coach and mentor, working with people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence, enabling them to find freedom in body and mind to live a more full and happy life. If you are interested in knowing more about my coaching work, then please take a look at my coaching website: www.hellybarnes.com

One reply on “What Is Compulsive Movement?”

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