Eating Disorder Recovery Exercise / Compulsive Movement Fear & Anxiety In Recovery Other ED Behaviours Rewiring / Neuroplasticity

Breaking Compulsive Exercise And Movement

Let me talk a bit more about compulsive exercise and movement with an eating disorder and in recovery because it is not spoken about as much as it should be, yet it is a key factor in keeping many of us sick and rarely addressed sufficiently in treatment.

Why it is not addressed more in treatment?  Perhaps because society deems it praise-worthy.  But sometimes we live in a screwed up society in which diet culture is too powerful!  Movement to the point of the inability to sit and relax is far from praiseworthy and in fact is frequently representative of an illness that kills and disables.

Throughout my years of this eating disorder, one of the strongest symptoms I have had has been the compulsive exercise and movement side of the illness.

This is one thing in over a decade, despite treatment cycles and other ‘attempts’ at recovery, I never ever overcame, even partially.

I managed to eat more and I managed to gain weight in the past, but always with the strong compulsions to be moving and doing…  And that is why I never recovered.

This side of the illness was never addressed and so it always kept me very sick – mentally and physically and very disabled socially.

To be honest, having had this strong urge to move, to walk, to stand, to exercise, to do yoga even for so many years, I think I reached a stage that I could not believe that I would ever really overcome it.  I had had treatment and the compulsions never went anywhere, in fact they probably just became stronger….. so why or how would I ever beat it now?

BUT – I am overcoming them… this time I am beating the constant drive to move or to be standing or to be walking, etc etc…

I can now sit and eat and rest much more easily than I have for over a decade and it is such a relief!!

There are times now, where I might have the thought pop into my head, of ‘why don’t you go for a walk’ or ‘shouldn’t you be standing now’… and I will think to myself – no – I just cannot be bothered with all that thanks!!

I am also noticing that some of my movement rituals have naturally dispersed, with my doing little to actually get rid of them… At times I am just sitting and realise, ‘huh.. I didn’t do that weird movement thing’ and then I will think, ‘should I do it now?’ but then laugh at my own illness and realise how irrational it always was.

Even when I have eaten huge and challenging amounts now, the movement compulsions are actually often reducing even more, not growing stronger as they once did.

I do now truly believe that the impossible is going to be possible and is going to be a reality for me because it is already starting to happen.  I do now truly believe that I will overcome the compulsions to constantly move that have plagued me for so many years.

And it is so freeing.  I can now spend an entire day with other people and not be hugely anxious because it is largely sedentary and involves food!

I can tolerate the thought of longer car journeys, of sitting to watch a film, of spending days indoors and not be constantly moving like the starved creature, hunting food that I had become (but then failing to eat enough of it!).

However, reaching this point has been HARD – it has been the hardest thing I have ever done.

Movement has been my drug to alleviate stress and negative emotions for years and overcoming that, tolerating distress and anxiety without resorting to the only thing that I know gives me an instant hit of calmness has been emotional, to say the least!

But I know there are many of you out there with the same compulsions… and you are desperate to stop them because they might be giving you a short term hit of calm but they are disabling you and shattering your life in every other way.

The compulsions to move or exercise won’t go away overnight (far from it!).

Don’t expect stopping it to be easy but know it is possible.

There are good and bad days in beating movement compulsions and good and bad moments in each day but to start to overcome the compulsions I had to go through the anxiety, the fear, the panic and the overwhelming urges that did arise over and over again.

I stayed true to my determination though and trusted that the more battles I won, the easier it would get… and I did not win all the battles but slowly the battles became less and easier to beat.

I still do have battles now but they are much more sporadic.

So… if you are battling compulsive movement at the moment, I thought I’d share a few approaches that I used to help me:

  • See unnecessary movement as ‘not an option’.

Use black and white thinking tendencies, so common in the ED brain, to take the option away from unnecessary movement and commit to doing everything you can to not engage in it.

  •  Tell people – be brave & honest.

Be accountable, not just to yourself.  Ask for support.  You will bite their head off when challenged but it will make you stop & think in the moment.

  •  Pretend to have a broken leg so that you cannot move!!


  • Find distractions.

Concentration might be poor when anxious but put on a mindless TV show (I find reruns of Friends good); read a book; do a jigsaw – anything!!

  •  Stay in the moment

Avoid thinking about what is happening later.  Stay focused on staying sedentary for this minute and then the next.

  • Dig into what the real you wants – a life of compulsive walking in the cold & rain?

I bet the real, inner you wants to sit, curl up and eat and that is ok!

  •  Don’t expect others, even health professionals to understand & say the right thing.

We have to own our recovery and do what WE know is right.

  • Bring it back to the FACT you are sick and need to rest long term to heal.

Rewiring the brain and the need to move compulsively or the links in the brain between eating and moving takes time and repeated recovery based action.

  •  If you can’t trust yourself when you go out, try to take someone with you who can slow you down or prevent compulsive routines and behaviours.


  • Fake it to make it

Relaxing won’t feel right or natural – it will feel very wrong – but fake enjoying it if you have to…. Fake it and allow it to one day be real! 


  • Finally, EAT – fill the time with food –  renourish and repair!!


Remember, recovery is  about not suppressing your body weight in any way…  not restricting eating, not moving to keep your weight below the set point it needs to be…

I have written a lot of posts before about compulsive movement and exercise – what it is and other suggestions of how to beat it, so please also have a read of these.

Overall though, know that overcoming compulsive movement is so so hard and I am not there fully yet, but I do now believe I will get there and that it is possible to overcome.  Plus, unless we do address the movement that gives the eating disorder life, full recovery can never be achieved.

2 replies on “Breaking Compulsive Exercise And Movement”

Ciao. Io ho il terrore di mettere solo massa grassa, ritenzione e cellulite. Non riesco a rilassarmi. Tu quando hai ripreso a fare esercizio fisico? Ora come ti alleni? Grazie un bacio


I have used google translate to understand your comment and questions.
As I understand it you are scared of gaining weight only as fat and fluid retention… That is a very common fear but the body does not gain only fat – it will gain all types of tissues, including muscle, bodily organs, blood cells, other tissues, skin, hair, nails and yes, some will be fat but that is because a human body needs a proportion of fat to be healthy.
You do not need to train to build muscles in recovery or even in life.
You ask too when I went back to exercise and how I train now? I have not really gone back to exercise (not formal exercise anyway) in any way since recovery and since overcoming the compulsion… and that is not because I am worried about it becoming compulsive again but just because it has zero interest to me to actively work out now. My activity is from day to day living, some walks, but otherwise nothing significant and I am fit and healthy and happier than I ever was in the illness.


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