Joyful Movement vs. Compulsive Exercise

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Today has been a great day so far. I went on a run around the neighborhood, then came home to do some yoga and stretching on my porch in the sun.

Two years ago, it wouldn’t have been like that. I was deep in the throes of anorexia, which was accompanied by compulsive exercise. I’d probably have gone to the gym for a long workout of lifting weights and the elliptical in order to “earn” my meager lunch. “Joyful movement”? I would have scoffed at the notion; exercise was to push my limits, test my willpower, and torch calories.

So….

what’s the difference between joyful movement, exercise compulsion, and exercise addiction?

compulsion is a strong urge to do something, often feeling as if you’re being forced.

An addiction is a dependency on something that causes adverse feelings when you stop using. Using seems to give the addict positive feelings.

You can see that compulsive exercise is different from exercise addiction, although many people use the terms interchangeably. Exercise compulsion goes hand-in-hand with eating disorders. People without eating disorders are more likely to use exercise in an addictive way than in a compulsive way. Addicts start out because it feels good, but exercise spirals out of control and becomes consuming.

Compulsive exercise, however, is driven by something (an obsession) that causes the compulsion. This obsession could be health, getting fit, losing weight, or improving performance. Exercise compulsion often stems out of anorexia or bulimia because of the obsession with burning calories and getting thinner. In the disordered person’s mind, failure to exercise “enough” or at the “right” times results in anxiety, depression, and horrible feelings of guilt.

Is this even harmful? Yes. Too much of a good thing is still too much! Overexercising can lead to fatigue, insomnia, stress fractures, a weakened immune system, amenorrhea (stopped periods) in women, loss of muscle mass, and lots of other delightful things. Not to mention the deterioration of friendships, relationships, and work performance.

Now, what’s this joyful movement thing?

I first heard this expression when I was in treatment for my eating disorder. The idea is that, yes, we need to move our bodies and exercise, but it doesn’t have to be painful or boring or torturous! It can be joyful, exciting, and fun!

Would you rather slogging away miserably on a treadmill in the noisy gym? Or would you rather play a pick-up game of soccer with your friends? Or take a belly dancing class? Or take a long hike up a mountain and jump in the lake at the top? Now, lots of people like to run on treadmills and they enjoy it. That’s just their thing. But it’s not for all of us. Joyful movement is discovering what you enjoy doing to move your body. It’s for fun, for health, fitness, stress relief, excitement, and for connecting with others. Working out isn’t all about gaining muscle, losing lbs, and burning off last night’s piece of cake. We move because that’s what all animals, including humans, do. It’s our nature.

This is not to say I don’t look down while I’m in boat pose and get a little irritable about my belly fat. Because, to be quite honest, I do that a lot. I don’t think my body is perfect, but I’m not striving for perfection. Only progress. And my aim is to become stronger, more flexible, and have stamina. We all have those thoughts about our body and how, if we lost ten pounds, we’d finally be happy and popular and life would be just perfect. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. Here I am, having gone to the other side and come back, to tell you right now:

DON’T EVEN WORRY ABOUT IT!

Please, find some joyful movement in your life! Maybe you love touch football, or skateboarding, or pogo-stick-ing, or tree climbing, or gator wrestling. Whatever it is that gets you out there having fun. I’m doing it and so can you.

********* If you think you might be suffering from exercise compulsion or addiction, please get help and consult a therapist and nutritionist.

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