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Eating Disorder Recovery Exercise / Compulsive Movement Rewiring / Neuroplasticity Weight Changes

Exercise & Movement in Recovery – Is It Compulsive?

Compulsive movement or exercise is a key part of an eating disorder for many… and I can confirm, first hand, that it is a miserable and cruel thing to live with.

Feeling compelled to keep moving your body, no matter what, and when not doing so feels overwhelmingly wrong and terrifying, makes the movement side of overcoming an eating disorder incredibly hard to break.

In fact, for me, the movement side of eating disorder recovery was something that I was not sure I would ever really overcome because it was so strong… and though there were spells in treatment when I could eat more and gain weight, the exercise compulsions never even came close to being addressed.

Happily, I can report that even a strong movement or exercise compulsion can be beaten down, but it takes perseverance, eating a lot of food and sitting (or sobbing) through some very terrifying moments of true panic (in my case on one or two occasions), complete brain fog, despair, feelings of guilt and grief.

But as you do get through these really difficult moments and resist the urge to go for that walk or run or to go upstairs (again) just for the sake of it, the urges will start to subside as your brain learns that it does not need to keep moving to find food or seek safety as you have food and safety right where you are.

One thing, however, with the sneaky movement side of the eating disorder, is that our brains get excellent at convincing us that the movement or exercise we are choosing to engage in, is not because we are feeling compelled to do it but it is because it is ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ and we are not going for that walk because of the eating disorder but because we ‘want’ to and we ‘need fresh air’ and we ‘feel better’ when we do…

So how do you know, particularly as you move forward in your recovery, if the movement or exercise you are doing is normal and genuinely ok or actually disordered and very much going to keep you sick, perpetuating the disordered brain pathways?

This was a question that I had to find the answer to in my recovery… Was the walk to the shops or the lower level movement I was engaging in (especially with now being a ‘healthy’ weight) actually still compulsive or was it really ok now?

To answer this, I came up with some indicators of when the movement or exercise was still eating disorder driven (and so should not be engaged in) and what might tell me that I was safe to let my body move more freely again.

I decided that no matter what weight I had become, exercise and movement was clearly still eating disorder driven when the points below still applied (even a tiny bit) and perhaps it will help you to apply them to your recovery too.

Movement or exercise is very likely still compulsive and disordered when:

  • There is guilt when you do not do it.
  • Agitation or anxiety starts to stir when you are not able to exercise or stand or move.
  • There remains an association in your brain between movement and how much you are ‘allowed’ to eat.
  • There remains a desire to move and exercise for the purposes of body shape and weight manipulation.
  • When you ask the question, “if it was guaranteed I would not gain weight if I did not exercise now, would I still do it?” and if you are really honest with yourself, you wouldn’t.
  • Your ongoing compulsion to exercise or move interferes with your ability to socialise, have normal relationships, partake in other activities or have a job, pursuits or travel that involves being sedentary…
  • There is rigidity in the what, when, how much of the movement or exercise, e.g. being obsessed over steps or laps or logging exercise; having rules about when in the day or week you have to be moving or set times you are ‘allowed’ to sit down.
  • You cannot stop the exercise even when sick or injured (FYI… exercising with flu or an injury is not ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ or fun!).
  • People comment on how much exercise you do… which might also give you a sense of pleasure and martyrdom!
  • When the urge to move occupies your thoughts and distracts you from conversations, work, reading or other things as you are too busy focusing on when you can exercise or move next or anxious / agitated about it.
  • You really really don’t want to do it at times but you just feel that you have to do it, no matter what and can’t stop yourself pulling on those shoes even though it is making you entirely miserable.
  • You will take up any opportunity to move your body in a small way, if you cannot move it in a big way… e.g. if you have to be sitting, then swinging your foot or leg, twitching muscles or clenching etc. Basically, you find it very hard to just be still.

So really, when any, some or all of these apply, then it is really very very likely that the movement is still compulsive and the way to address it is to stop it until you are 110% sure that none of these markers of ongoing exercise compulsion feature in your life one iota any longer.

It is not normal to have a level of fixation on movement to the point that it interferes with the rest of your life. And as I said at the start, it is fucking miserable….(excuse the French!).

With this part of recovery (as with the other parts actually) the only way out is through.

Stopping the movement and forcing yourself to not do it will be an up and down process and some battles you will win and some you will lose, but each time you don’t put on those shoes and head out the door or sit instead of stand and eat cookies on the sofa, your brain will be recognising that it is safe just where it is and there is no need to keep running and moving to escape the danger it mistakenly senses.

It is also crucial to point out here that the weight or shape you are now, when trying to overcome a movement compulsion is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you are ‘underweight’, ‘normal’ weight or ‘overweight’ by BMI chart…

This is about mental and physical healing and body size says little about either.

The size of your body does not tell you about the internal damage you might have as a result of the eating disorder, that your body still needs time, rest and nourishment to heal…

And mentally, you need to overcome this, no matter what, which means, as with any compulsion or addiction, stopping it for long enough that your brain can fully rewire to learn that resting is not a threat to your life.

When you can put your hand on your heart and say that the signs above in terms of your relationship with movement and exercise no longer apply at all… which, if coming from years of compulsive exercise, might take a long time, then finally you might be able to start to have a more ‘normal’ relationship with movement.

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I have also made this post into a podcast episode on my podcast series,

‘Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery’,

which you will find on all mainstream podcast platforms.

2 replies on “Exercise & Movement in Recovery – Is It Compulsive?”

I have actually considered having my ED daughter’s legs broken to stop the insanity! But she would probably continue to run with splints/casts on them! She even ran when told she had a compression fracture in her tibia! Will never give up regardless..

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That sounds like I was! I exercised on stress fractures and at one point the ED team sent me to the emergency department with a letter asking them to put plasters on my leg to try to help me stop exercising but the emergency department wouldn’t do it and to be fair it wouldn’t have made a difference. I did always want to stop but at that point couldn’t do so. But I did come out the other side of that level of exercise compulsion and it is possible. Huge amounts of food is key and aiming for cold turkey but she also needs to decide this is it. Don’t give up on hope for her xx

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