What I learned from a moderate case of exercise addiction and body dysmorphia
Are your fitness habits healthy and balanced?
Most of my mommy readers are probably struggling with starting or sticking to an exercise program. Exercise addiction, or being obsessed with exercise and regularly overdoing it, may not be the issue. However, as women, we may choose to start an exercise program for all the wrong reasons, as I did many years ago.
It’s important to consider why you want to begin exercising. Is this goal coming from a place of love for your body and a desire to nourish it? Or are you acting on the wishes of others, an internal loathing of your current appearance and weight (body dysmorphia), or some other negative reason?
Your personal reasons for focusing on your fitness or any other aspect of your health matter tremendously. In my case, having motivation that was off balance lead me to develop an exercise addiction which ended up negatively impacting the equilibrium of my body. Not to mention the effects it had on my mental health!
Below is my personal journey with exercise addiction and body dysmorphia, and the steps I took to overcome these issues. I hope my story inspires you to foster more balance in your mental and emotional terrain as it pertains not only to fitness but to your outlook on healthy living in general.
What is body dysmorphia?
Body dysmorphia or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is an unhealthy preoccupation with the way any area – face, nose, skin, weight, breast size, etc. – of the body looks.
This may lead a person to constantly be examining themselves in the mirror, obsessively trying to change their looks (whether by surgery or diet and exercise) and feeling that others are negatively judging the way their body looks.
Causes of body dysmorphia include brain chemistry imbalances, heredity, societal pressures to look a certain way and a past history of sexual abuse.
My journey with body dysmorphic disorder
Weight gain and loss
While pregnant with my first baby, I gained almost 50 pounds. When my son was a month old, I weighed about 30 pounds more than my original weight. I remember trying to squeeze myself into a pair of pre-baby jeans and being unable to even pull them up over my knee (KNEE people!!). Just a tad depressing to say the least.
As soon as I was approved to start an exercise program again I hit the gym and began working my butt off. No way no how I was going to be 30 pounds overweight forever!
Within 3 months I dropped 20 pounds. By all means a healthy, normal rate of loss (1-2 pounds per week is just right). But for the next two years, I stubbornly hung on to that extra 10 pounds (and then some), fluctuating up and down.
I was frustrated but the only thing I knew to do was cut calories and exercise like a mad woman. So I did.
I dropped down to the lowest possible calorie count (1200 calories per day) and increased my exercise from 4-5 days per week for 30 minutes to 7 days per week for an hour or more.
My path to disordered thinking and habits
After a while, it felt as if all I could think about was food or my next workout. I was constantly crunching calorie counts in my head to keep a running tally or planning my fitness routine.
I didn’t dare miss a workout or eat more than I “should,” yet that did nothing to allay this low level of anxiety I felt nearly every day. Was I doing enough? Was this finally going to work?
Each day I weighed myself, celebrating every ounce lost or berating myself if I didn’t make progress. Rather than seeing success when I looked at my body in the mirror (after all, I HAD brought a tiny human into this world and managed to lose 20 pounds), all I could see was failure, stretchmarks and hips I deemed too big.
It didn’t occur to me that this was an unhealthy exercise addiction and body dysmorphia at play. I figured I had to be tough on myself if I was ever going to get back to my pre-baby weight.
The aha moment
It wasn’t until I managed to delay my period for over a week that I realized what the stress of my disordered habits was doing to my body (my periods had always been regular so it was easy to pinpoint what caused this). My eating and exercise habits were no longer a normal desire to lose a little weight, but self-abuse based on body dysmorphia.
[Several years later, I wrote about my experience and the real reasons I developed disordered dietary and exercise habits at The Shape of a Mother, called “Stretchmarks and All,” click to read. However, I warn you now, you may learn more about me than you ever cared to.]
What finally became clear to me was that I was doing this out of a hatred for my body. In my head, I constantly told myself I was fat, unattractive, and “used-up” (at the ripe old age of 22, lol). Of course, that was far from the truth!
At one point, when I just couldn’t take restricting my diet any longer (calories-wise that is), I dug into a gallon of ice cream and ate about half the carton, right there with freezer door still open and all. I couldn’t shove it into my mouth fast enough. That was the breaking point for me. I vowed to find a better way; a way to care for my health and well-being without loathing myself along the way.
I knew I had to do this because I loved myself, cherished my body and accepted it exactly the way it was, even if I never did lose those last 10 pounds.
Learning to love my body
So I quit the crazy workout routine and allowed myself to eat whenever I felt hungry. Yes, I gained a few pounds back, but I was learning -slowly, fearfully – to love myself, to look at my body as a friend rather than foe.
Not long after I had my second child, I started seeing a naturopathic doctor and learned a healthy, sustainable approach to eating well (bye-bye crazy calorie restriction). I was also introduced to an effective emotional reframing technique that helped me heal from past traumas.
In addition, I got into yoga and fell in love will how relaxed and in touch with my body it made me feel. My exercise routine no longer consisted of grueling 60-minute cardio sessions on the treadmill. (I hated long-distance jogging but had previously made myself do it because I thought it was what I was supposed to do in order to blast fat.) Or forced weight lifting routines with a huge amount of reps that bored me.
Instead, I chose to get outside in nature and take walks. I began practicing yoga and pilates. I ate clean, whole and plant-based, and ditched counting calories every single second. I journaled about my feelings towards my body and began to challenge my negative thinking patterns.
My body as it was meant to be
Over time this new process produced fantastic results. At last my body released those last 10 pounds, my digestive issues improved, my periods normalized, and I felt more and more mentally and emotionally clear than I ever had previously. Before I knew it my exercise addiction and body dysmorphia were a distant memory.
Today, I effortlessly maintain my weight on autopilot, a weight my body is actually comfortable being at (without ever counting a single calorie!). Even better than that, I can look in the mirror and truly love and appreciate my reflection. Despite the stretch marks still being there or my body being a decade older at this point, I’m proud of what I see. I worry less about the little imperfections and chose to focus on how good I feel in my own skin because, in the end, that’s really what matters most.
These days, I can finally channel the spirit of my more carefree childlike self, the one who used to love herself by default before the world taught her differently. My inner feelings now echo those of my young daughter, who once climbed up on the bathroom counter, looked in the mirror, smiled and said, “Yep, I love myself.”
I wish the same for you, dear reader. If you’re struggling with food addictions, disordered eating habits, exercise addiction, body dysmorphia or negative thinking patterns when it comes to your body, diet and wellness, know that you can overcome it. You’re not doomed to be stuck forever!
Healthy living is so much more than eating all the right foods, finding just the right fitness program, incorporating natural remedies or removing every toxin you can think of from your life. True health comes from a place of living whole: wholeness of mind, body, and spirit; calm, centered and joyful. Our mental and emotional well-being is just as important as any physical factor.
Ready to change YOUR mindset?
Sign up for the free 5-day Mindset Reset journal to help get your mind and spirit on the right track for healthy living. In it you’ll find daily mental and emotional exercises you can use to transform negative thinking patterns, journaling prompts to help you dig deeper, positive affirmations, EFT scripts, and links to relaxing meditations to help you cultivate calm and joyful thinking. The best part? It’s free!
What are YOUR reasons for healthy living? Do you love, appreciate and accept your body?
Hi! I’m Liane, mindset coach and holistic nutritionist in training. I have a passion for all things natural, healthy and holistic. My aim is to inspire you on your healthy living journey by sharing simple, everyday holistic habits that can transform your well-being and life.