It’s generally accepted that exercise is healthy, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, it can hurt our physical and emotional health. The line can be a bit blurry, so let’s talk a bit about when exercise stops being healthy and becomes harmful.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship with Exercise
Here are some signs to look for to help determine whether your relationship with exercise it healthy or toxic:
- You feel guilty, anxious or ashamed when you don’t work out, or don’t work out as long or hard as you think you should
- You exercise even when you’re fatigued, injured, or ill
- If you couldn’t work out for a while, you’d freak out
- Exercise is focused on getting or staying in a certain type of body
- You “earn” food through working out
- You don’t really enjoy your workouts anymore
- Working out causes stress instead of relieving it
- Needing to exercise displaces other important things in your life
- Your identity/self-worth is wrapped up in your fitness and you’re not sure who you’d be without it—or you worry about losing the status of being the “fit” person everyone sees you as
If any of these describe you, then you probably need to re-evaluate your relationship with exercise. As Katherine Schreiber, the co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration said, “I think we can all agree that canceling plans with friends because you are a slave to the treadmill, running with an injured knee, or being terrified of taking a rest day, is not mentally healthy.”
Yet because working out is considered healthy in our society, we usually don’t question it… even when it becomes excessive, compulsive, or a source of distress. Too often, we’re not honest with ourselves about the ways it has become problematic. I think that can partly be attributed to a phenomena known as toxic fitness.
What is Toxic Fitness?
Toxic fitness happens when exercise and the pursuit of fitness is wrapped up in diet culture. So instead of being about health, it’s actually about weight loss, thinness and shaping our bodies—just like dieting and disordered eating, which, not surprisingly, often accompany toxic fitness.
“Toxic fitness culture has made working out into some kind of competition of who can look the slimmest or have the best body. It makes us feel like we have to push ourselves past our limits and prioritize fitness above everything else in our lives. It can have damaging effects on our body image and our fitness.” ~ Alice Kelly
Be discerning about the content and people you let influence your relationship with your body, exercise, and food. Here are some toxic fitness red flags:
- Exercise for the primary purpose of losing or maintaining weight.
- Promoting “fit” as a specific look (you know the one — the lean and toned ideal that’s plastered everywhere).
- Motivating people with things like getting “bikini ready,” achieving a “new you,” looking good in a strapless wedding dress, or any other body-shaming tactic.
- Promoting exercise as a “no pain, no gain” activity that only really counts if you beat your body up or it hurts.
- Encouraging people to work out even when they are injured or should rest.
- Associating exercise with food in a negative way (e.g. earning food through exercise or warning against negating a work out with what you eat).
- Fitness gurus who don’t include body-diversity in their programs, which means featuring diverse people (sizes, color, etc.) as well as being able to offer exercises that accommodate people in larger or differently-abled bodies.
- Emphasis on exercise and diet as the only ways to be healthy.
- Shaming people—directly or indirectly—for not working out long enough or more often.
- Tying one’s identity or self-worth to exercise or level of fitness.
Exercise shouldn’t be about punishing or even manipulating your body. It should be about taking care of it. It might be tough to develop a healthy relationship with exercise if it’s been toxic for you up until now, but you can change it—just like you can change your relationship with food. Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for tips on how to do that!
Random side note, but …
Pleeeeease stop taking nutrition advice from personal trainers. One, that is outside their scope! My husband was a personal trainer for years and it drove him bonkers to hear other trainers coaching their clients on their diet. And two, he also believes that the majority (not all of course, but most) personal trainers have their own struggles with body image and food. There’s not a lot of research on the subject, but what is there supports his personal experience—there is a high rate of disordered eating amongst fitness professionals. That’s something to keep in mind when taking advice from them.
If you do need help with nutrition or your relationship with food, please talk to an anti-diet, Health at Every Size® therapist or dietitian. If you can’t find one in your area or don’t know where to start looking, reach out to me and I will do my best to help you find someone!
P.S. Check out the other parts of this Exercise Series…
- Part 2: The Role of Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery
- Part 3: Developing a Health Relationship with Exercise
I’m Cherie Miller, MS, LPC, founder of Food Freedom Therapy™. I offer counseling for chronic dieting as well eating disorder therapy for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, OSFED, ARFID, and other eating disorder issues. Contact me here or follow me on Instagram or Facebook.