Looking for eating disorder support in your area? Visit HelpFinder

Exercise: the double edged sword

As I woke in hospital one afternoon last January, due to having collapsed in my flat that morning, you’d expect the first thing I’d do would be to contact my family, or gather my thoughts for a moment. Wrong. The first thing I did was check my running app to enviously eye up other people’s workouts and lament the fact I had missed my morning run.

In today’s society, so many people are loud-and-proud gym bunnies, constantly posting on social media about PBs, juice cleanses and gruelling, military style workouts. Due to this, it became increasingly easy for me, an anorexia sufferer with a crippling exercise addiction to blend in and go unnoticed.

The reality is that few people recognise exercise as an addiction in the same way they do alcohol, gambling or drugs. This made it exponentially harder for me to seek treatment initially. It was only when my exercise addiction threw me into a horrendous relapse with anorexia that both myself and professionals saw my problems as valid.

How could I genuinely believe I had a problem when exercise addiction is greeted with praise? I once disclosed to a friend that I am addicted to exercise, to which she laughed and said, “I wish I were addicted to exercise! I’m addicted to cake!”

What she failed to realise is that for me, exercise is often used to cover up psychological distress and acts as a benefactor to my eating disorder. The warning signs are not always visible, especially to a health professional who fails to consider the social implications of a disordered relationship with exercise: the fragmented interpersonal relationships, the loneliness.

The lectures skipped at university to “earn my lunch” in the gym. The coffee dates with friends that would often be cancelled in favour of a run. The shaking, purple hands from walking for miles in the cold, constantly glaring at my sports watch, praying for the step count to go up. I even forced myself to run after Christmas Day lunch two years ago, as opposed to sitting by the fire with my cats and a glass of Prosecco (which I most certainly did last year!). I wish I had understood that we are all worthy of food, regardless of our activity levels, and that food is not a “reward”, but a necessity for our bodies to function!

The problem is that many mental health professionals (and in my experience, even eating disorder professionals!) extol the virtues of exercise, and often prescribe it for mental health problems in general, as a natural alternative to medication or therapy. Although there is no denying that exercise boosts serotonin levels, and can often give people a much-needed purpose in their day, sadly many individuals with depression/anxiety suffer simultaneously with eating disorders. For anyone with a compulsive way of thinking about food, weight and behaviours, exercise can quickly escalate into an unhealthy coping mechanism.

I was in the throes of an eating disorder, but all the while keeping up the façade of being a healthy, young woman who liked to keep fit! It was only when I had to take time off exercise, having just run a half marathon in the autumn, that things really began to spiral. How could I justify eating if I wasn’t able to exercise? And so my intake became even more restricted. I stopped attending university, I barely left the house, and began exercising in secret in a desperate attempt to claw back some control over my exercise regime. I would tell my flatmates I was walking to the shop to buy some food, and instead would sprint there, light headed and faint, but high on adrenaline.

After my weight dropped significantly, my flatmate and boyfriend persuaded me to seek help for both my eating disorder and my exercise addiction. They selflessly took me to numerous appointments and I began to realise that perhaps more people had noticed my ridiculous exercise regime than I initially realised.

And so began a year of ECGs, blood tests, DEXA scans, isolation, hospital admissions, dieticians and the many tears that came with gaining weight and letting go of the behaviours that led me to this very dark place.

But I began to question: why was it that I only felt my problems were valid when they revolved more around food, and less around exercise? I strongly believe that exercise can be hugely beneficial in regards to someone’s mental health and wellbeing. However, in my opinion, doctors need to realise that mental health is not “one size fits all”, and although for some exercise can be an ideal solution, for those with a turbulent relationship with food, it can become yet another means of self-destruction.

Without wanting to have regrets, I must say that I wish I would’ve taken my exercise addiction seriously and sought help before my anorexia took hold. I cannot stress enough that disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food can come in so many forms: exercise, laxatives, bingeing etc.

I used to justify my exercise addiction with “Everything’s fine because I’m still eating…” but if the only way you can allow yourself to eat is after partaking in strenuous exercise – please know that this is a real problem, you are not alone, and you are worthy of help. 

Contributed by Katie

What happens when you start to feed your brain again?

5 May 2021

You have to learn how to live again and, like with any lessons, you often have to fail to learn the best way or the right way...

Read more

"Things can improve, even when it feels hopeless"

29 April 2021

In the past I’ve wanted to hide the eating disorders that are part of my history, but I want to shout from the rooftops: I'm proud of how far I had come!

Read more

"This year has taught me to be kinder to myself"

21 December 2020

What a year 2020 has been in general for everyone – it was a year no one ever could have imagined, from panic buying, toilet roll shortages, lockdowns and restrictions. Yet for so many, including me, the battle against an eating disorder continued.

Read more