Compulsively Exercising Is A Dangerous Mental Trap

27th September, 2021 2:20 pm


“Everything in moderation”, “life is about balance”: phrases I recoil at whenever I hear them. I don’t have a brain that embraces balance and moderation. I veer towards extremes, and find it immensely trying when asked to plot a course which takes the middle path.

It doesn’t work out that well usually. I get obsessive about things and, before I know it, I’m taking it too far. When the pandemic started, I felt so out of control that I decided the only thing to do was to up my exercise. It would make me stronger, I reasoned, a good position to be in when a deadly virus was making its way through the population. So I ran – something I’ve always done, but I really pushed myself. I upped my running to 12km a day, every day. No matter the weather, no matter what my body was saying (“listen to your body” is another phrase I’ve always ignored). It was the only thing that was normal and doable. Sitting on the couch was not for me. Being gentle on myself was stupid. It turns out: I was stupid.

This summer I started feeling knackered. I kept going, trying to kickstart the usual relief I’d get from running. It didn’t come back, but I didn’t stop trying. I ran different routes, longer routes, pushing myself up hills and not stopping even when my legs felt like lead. I took walking breaks in between sprints, silently panicking that I’d lost the capacity to do it at all.

The panic was justified. If I didn’t have running, I wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on my anxiety. Running has been the main tool in my arsenal for so long, the idea of it no longer working its magic was terrifying.

And then, in high summer, I just stopped. I was too tired, too anxious, too jittery to run. I was hungry, so hungry. I spent a week not moving at all. My step count (another thing I check in on as if it can measure my mental health in steps) dropped to triple digits. I felt as if I was a hamster who’d tumbled off the wheel and wouldn’t be able to get back on.

Running long stretches without a break for 18 months hadn’t guarded against anxiety or low mood. Instead, I was sat on the couch feeling diabolical and let down. Slowly, far too slowly, I started to see that perhaps running wasn’t the issue – instead I’d taken something helpful and made it work against me. Ice cream is delicious until you eat so much you feel sick. Wine is manna from the gods unless you down a bottle of it. The key to enjoyment might actually be moderation. And I felt so dumb for falling down such a big hole.

Running was one of the great joys of my life, and I’d made it into a chore. I’d given it magical powers it didn’t have, and didn’t even promise to have. It couldn’t change the fact that we were living through an unprecedented global event. It couldn’t give me back certainty and control. And yet every time a run didn’t make me feel better, I doubled down and ran more instead of looking for other avenues of relief – or, even more importantly, accepting the uncertainty and worry that we were all feeling.

Obsessive exercise is not uncommon. It initially feels like a healthy way to get rid of stress, and maintain control, which is why one can let it carry on without realising it’s a problem. You reason that you’re doing something good for yourself, how can that be wrong? You ignore your body telling you it’s tired. You brush off the suspicion that it might not be working so well. You neglect other coping strategies. You are a horse, wearing blinkers, focused on running straight ahead.

At some point, you’ve got to accept when something isn’t working for you in the way that it once did. It’s hard to do that. I don’t want to stop running, I don’t ever want to lose that joyful feeling when the rush hits and you sprint through the park. But I’ve stopped 12km slogs. I’ve stopped going every day. I am forcibly moderating myself. I’ve started weightlifting again, something I told myself I didn’t have time for because I was a runner. And I enjoy it. I look forward to it in the way I used to look forward to running. I don’t want to get obsessive about it, so I try to stop when my body tells me to. Anxiety still lingers. I attempt to sit still when it does. I have not mastered the balance by any means, but I’m trying to listen to my body more. Exercise should make you feel stronger, happier, brighter. If it’s not doing any of those things, consider loosening the blinkers a little bit. Don’t punish yourself by staying on the wheel. Don’t punish yourself at all.

Source: Vogue, September 2021

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