Compulsive Movement in Eating Disorders: Its not all about hitting the gym
Restrictive forms of eating disorders are often associated with individuals being obsessed with pounding away on the treadmill at the gym, running for miles around a park, or ritualistically participating in workout routines from You Tube and Instagram… whether that be weight lifting, press-ups or star jumps.
According to the common myths surrounding eating disorders, this that involve issues around exercise can be easily spotted within the realms of aerobics classes, personal training groups, Interval training squads, and other obvious arenas associated with burning calories and shredding fat.
However, anorexia or other restrictive forms of disordered eating don’t always coincide with issues around exercise in the way many of us think. Instead, more subtle forms of exercise, that aren’t so easily seen, are used to ease anxiety, gain control. We can easily high the fact that we really do have a problem with pure relaxation and not moving, because walking and subtle forms of getting from A to B appear ‘normal’ and in line with public health messages to move more.
This is something I can strongly relate to, and maybe you can too…
For years and years, just because I didn’t own my own gym membership and was unable to run up the street without breaking into a puff and a pant, I believed that I never had a problem with exercise. How wrong I was.
You see, eating disorders are very insidious manipulators. They will keep their sufferers with a gag in their mouth while trapped in a false belief system. Every thought and behaviour seem justifiable and perfectly OK … even when they are doing serious long term harm to their mind and body. One way of doing this is forcing its victims into playing a game of ‘how can I burn Calories or not feel guilty for being sedentary without anyone even noticing … not even you’.
I never knew that I’d ever signed up to play this weird sick game, but I rolled its evil dice every time I went for my pre-breakfast walk, repeatedly made excuses of why I needed to go out and walk somewhere to pick something up, or take regular breaks from work and meetings so I could fit in just a few more steps. If I sat down for longer than an hour, I’d feel a compelling sense to stand up or move around. Even if it was just a few paces to the kitchen, run to the toilet or to grab something from upstairs.
I’d almost always make myself walk a little bit further or the ever so slightly longer route to my destination. Pretty normal right? Perhaps on the outside, but my intentions and need to walk and move came from a non-compassionate place. I felt super guilty for spending time sitting down and relaxing. I never went to the gym or tracked the Calories I was using up during exercise, but I couldn’t fathom how some people could sit inside the house ALL DAY and not need to go for a walk! If I were to do that, I would 99.9% be likely to skimp on food, or ensure that I did extra movement the next day to make up for it (cue eating disorder alarm!!!).
I tricked myself into believing that I really did just want to go for a walk because the weather outside was gloriously sunny, or that my 7:30am stroll helped me to get ‘fired up’ for the day. In reality, I did it because I knew, if I didn’t, there would be a shed load of guilt to endure. Eating food would seem like a double challenge - something I hadn’t earned, or would gain a shi* ton of weight for.
I’d never heard anyone talk about the more secret forms of exercise that anorexia could sneak into a sufferers life, but deep down, I knew that the two were somehow linked in my own life. For example, there were many times where I’d walk out with three coats on, an umbrella and a hat whilst it was pouring down with rain in the dark mornings and evenings despite the inevitability of getting drenched to my knickers.
Yep, I was that crazy per..son walking around looking like a weirdo without a dog in the most severe and windy weather.
My poor dog who I took out with me probably knew that I was as mad as a hatter …. Even crazier still, my dog walks sometimes became ‘no dog’ walks, because I’d still go on the same or very rigidly planned out walking routes even when I didn’t have my dog with me or I feared he would get too wet and cold.
As you may be able to see, I was able to look out for the welfare of others, but not myself. Sometimes, I knew that I was putting myself in danger by walking out alone at night in dodgy areas, or that my walking routine prevented me from learning key parts of a workshop when I decided to sneak out at various points of the session …
On the outside, I may not have seemed different to anyone else, but eventually I knew that I wasn’t quite normal or healthy in my patterns of exercise. Eventually, some warning signs made me realise that I needed to do something about it.
One example is the times I have gone walking out in a horrific storm, regardless of the safety implications. Second, I stupidly decided to buy a step-o-meter “for my health” (whatever). That didn’t lead me to gaining any health, but instead led to me becoming even more obsessed my numbers and the amounts I needed to be walking each day.
Soon, 10,000 steps became a minimum amount, which gradually increased until I couldn’t spend a few minutes being still without the need to walk or move. It disrupted my life, learning opportunities and my ability to accept social invites because I feared we would be sat down far too long and wouldn’t be able to reach X amount of steps! Seriously, there are worse things in the World I could worry about, and I chose something ridiculously insignificant.
Although my walking at the present time isn’t at a severely disordered level ( I thankfully had the courage to throw my step-o-meter in the bin!), it in many ways is still disruptive. Its like a little ticking bomb in the back of my brain that could be triggered any moment.
I really wish that there will be days where I choose to have breakfast in bed, or get up much later than usual because I don’t need to do my morning walk. But unfortunately that is not the current case. Does my walking appear abnormal? Probably not to others living outside the realm of my messed up mind. But it does affect my ability to simply be present and enjoy the day without worrying about when and where I can fit in subtle forms of movement and exercise.
Is this something I would like to be free from? YES, YES AND YES. However, I know it will be a process, and not a quick fix because this is something I have been doing for years on auto-pilot. I am making a conscious effort to cut my walking down, but not only that, be able to make a genuine choice of when I’d like to walk compared to when anorexia would like to walk and how much.
If you can relate to this post in some way, then I hope that you will be able to see that your exercise behaviour is still something to tackle even if it doesn’t happen in the midst of gym bunnies or #FITSPO hashtags (although please do try to unfollow those accounts if you’re attached to any!).
Movement can be an issue no matter how much you walk or how you move. It can be an issue purely because there is guilt and fear attached to NOT doing it.
Even if you walk up the street once per day, but are doing it with the intention to burn off Calories, not feel guilty, or gain permission to eat, this is NOT HEALTHY. Most likely, it is very strongly linked to your eating disorder, just as it has been mine. It has just been playing its little game underneath the surface, making your problems so seemingly invisible that it becomes hard to ask for help.
For example, for several months, I didn’t want to speak about obsessive or compulsive movement because I didn’t want someone to tell me to stop. I thought my level of movement was genuinely for health reasons, and that I needed to do more rather than less (what a load of bull poo lies anorexia gives hey!).
But any way, I want you to know that you are not alone in your struggles with compulsive movement or walking. You don’t need to do a significantly large amount or a ridiculous number of steps per day before seeking help. Even if you’re barely walking 5000 steps, let alone, 10,000, there is still a cause for concern. Movement compulsions strengthen over time, and who knows how insidious and harmful to our physical, psychological and social lives it will be in he future?
It probably goes without saying that we are all deserving of help no matter how much we currently eat or what we weight. The same is true for movement too. So, if you are struggling, tell someone, or be more honest with yourself. I know it can be incredibly difficult, but in order to stop the compulsions, we also need to stop the walking or OCD- like movements completely. Its a little bit like experiencing withdrawal from an addiction to a substance, only in this case, the substance is a compulsion to move!
At the moment, I’m working on not having to do any structured walks AT ALL throughout the day, and instead simply just learning to take a stroll around the shops when it is completely necessary. My 5 dog walks have become 1, and I am still learning lots about why I need to move in the previously very ritualistic and obsessive ways I have done over the last decade or more (Yep, I definitely must be known as the crazy woman walker in my local neighbourhood).
Any piece of recovery is worth fighting for, because it will in some way allow you to reclaim more life back. Just like the eating component of recovery, we must make a commitment to tackling our movement compulsions no matter how anxiety provoking they may be.
Over time, I promise that the anxiety will reduce. We don’t have to give up exercise or walking or movement forever, but right now, no matter what you weigh or how much you do, we need to stop, listen and DON’T go…. Yes, even if that means sitting on your bottom for hours colouring in rather than walking out on a sunny day!
Its bloody hard to do, but worth it for the freedom in the long run. Never having to worry about getting soaked in the rain during icy weather just so I can get my walking fix.
Its a journey, but its one where we will learn so much about ourselves and eventually find out ways we can better cope with life in ways that are self-compassionate and relaxing rather than self-sabotaging and hurtful.
Let this be your permission to be honest with yourself, and make a commitment to better understand your movement habits, ask for help, and conquer this issue regardless of how ‘well’ your body appears. You are 110% worth it.