The commodification of health and fitness has exploded in recent years, creating what is now a multibillion-dollar industry with its main focus on the aesthetic aspects of fitness.
Assumptions are constantly made about people’s health and abilities based on the shape and size of their body, despite the thoroughly debunked idea that a person’s weight is a good indicator of their health status or fitness level.
Health is defined by the World Health Organization as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease’, whilst fitness describes your physical ability to perform certain aspects of sport, occupational or daily activities.
Nowhere do either of these definitions mention what a person weighs, or whether or not they have a chiseled six-pack. Yet, if you were to go by mainstream and social media, the terms health and fitness conjure up a very specific image of a lean, toned body in glamorous activewear.
This unrealistic body ideal inspired me to embark on the fitness journey that almost destroyed my health.
While I was being praised more than ever for how ‘fit’ I looked, my body was deteriorating, my mind became consumed with disordered, toxic thoughts, and my relationships became casualties to my obsession with fitness.
Despite my knowledge of the dangers of restrictive diets, and my past experience of overcoming an eating disorder, the allure of the ‘fit girl’ aesthetic led me down a path that could have cost me my life.
Excessive and compulsive exercise: when fitness becomes unhealthy
Ainsley Hudgson and Jessica Ryan, clinical psychologists and directors of Nourish Nurture Thrive, see many clients in their specialised eating disorder clinic who are struggling with compulsive or excessive exercise.
“Whilst exercise can often represent a health promoting behaviour, it can all too commonly be a source of guilt, angst and anxiety for many individuals,” they explained.
People suffering with this condition often exercise in an obsessive, rigid way and to an excessive intensity, duration and frequency.
“An individual may feel compelled to engage in the exercise, regardless of whether they have the desire or energy to participate,” said Hudgson and Ryan.
“The weather is ignored, and illness or injury is dismissed. Taking a day off or skipping an exercise session results in intense feelings of guilt, anxiety and distress. Daily life is often planned around exercise regimes, with exercise holding top priority over other important parts of life, such as work, family and friends.”
My fitness journey began as a physical outlet to relieve the stress and mental load of my demanding job, but it didn’t take long for things to turn south.
I had been struggling, feeling burnt out, and questioning whether I was in the right career, despite recently landing a dream job. I felt out of control and anxious – the perfect breeding ground for my disordered eating habits and mindset to grow.
My desperation to feel some sense of control led me to hyper focus on my fitness, and I started to believe that a smaller body would magically solve all the other problems in my life. Deep down I knew this was a lie, but in a moment of vulnerability it took root deep in my psyche.
Even though I could see the dark path I was heading down, I couldn’t shake the belief that getting visible abs and reaching a certain dress size would ease my anguish.
It was also a subconscious cry for help, using my body as a canvas to express my pain without words, whittling it down until I looked as weak, scared and fragile as I felt inside.
Has society’s obsession with fitness gone too far?
I’ve always been passionate about mental health, and in some of my stronger moments I recognised that I should ease off the obsessive exercise to give my mind and body a desperately needed break.
However, the compliments I had received from others were fuelling my developing illness, congratulating me for my ‘willpower’ and praising my increasingly slim physique.
I felt uncomfortable whenever someone commented on my weight loss, but I also craved the recognition, as my body image and rigid exercise habits had become so inextricably linked with my sense of self-worth.
I worried that if I cut back on exercising to a more balanced level, that others would notice the change and think I had ‘let myself go’. I was terrified of where my obsession was leading me, but somehow the idea of rest and relaxation scared me more.
Hudgson and Ryan explained that compulsive exercise affects people of all genders, though men more commonly use the behaviour to try to ‘bulk up’ or gain muscle, while women more often use excessive exercise as compensatory behaviour to lose weight.
Despite these differing drivers, compulsive exercise is on the rise, thanks to society’s tendency to assign moral value to wellness and put physical attractiveness or ‘fitness’ on a pedestal. As a result, women who live in larger bodies are dismissed as unfit, lazy, or greedy, and frequently experience discrimination in the workplace, social settings and when seeking healthcare.
The widespread acceptance of rigid fitness ideals has permeated our collective consciousness, manifesting itself as an obsession with fitness trackers and arbitrary goals like completing 10,000 steps per day, despite no evidence that it is essential for good health.
“Many people are surprised to learn that the origins of this ‘magic number’ actually developed from a marketing campaign to sell pedometers, shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,” said Hudgson and Ryan.
“There is very limited research to support this exact number being the gold standard.”
This is just one example of how powerful capitalist entities have manipulated us into believing we ‘need’ to exercise in a certain way, for a certain aesthetic goal, and of course, with certain branded products to meticulously track it all.
Eating and exercise disorders don’t discriminate
Stigma and misconceptions around exercise addiction and eating disorders continue to be a major barrier to people seeking help and making a full recovery.
People falsely presume that they can ‘tell’ if a person struggles with food or exercise, purely based on their appearance or surface-level interactions. This mistake, while easy to make, can be extremely dangerous.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and not all require a low body weight in order to be diagnosed. In fact, most people with eating disorders are not underweight, and many live in an average or larger sized body.
Recognising an unhealthy relationship with exercise can be extremely difficult, especially among athletes, as there can be a fine line between commitment and dangerous obsession. Athlete and gym culture tends to uphold body ideals and standards just as rigid as those in the fashion industry, even if they look slightly different.
“Whilst there have been some positive shifts towards promoting body diversity and body acceptance, there remains the ongoing promotion of unrealistic body ideals,” said Hudgson and Ryan.
“The typical idealised body, or ‘thin ideal’ has shifted to represent another impossibly unrealistic body type – a figure that is not only thin (with a flat stomach and small waist), but also curvy (in areas such as buttocks, hips and breasts) and also muscular.
“Diet culture plays a big role in promoting the thin ideal, directing people to compare themselves to a body that is likely to be unrealistic and unattainable. The biggest influence on our body shape and size is our genetics.
“However, we are constantly sold the message that if we eat the right thing, exercise in the right way and buy the right products, then we can obtain this idolised image of the perfect body. The truth is, that this message is not only harmful and dangerous, it’s just not accurate for most people.”
Contrary to the advice of often unqualified fitness ‘influencers’, this exaggerated hourglass shape is completely impossible for most women, spare those who have incredible genetics or who can afford the costly surgical procedures to attain a physique that attracts more clicks via social media algorithms. Despite this, too many women and girls are losing their lives to the futile pursuit of physical ‘perfection’.
Exercise addiction is often a coping mechanism for deeper issues
Through extremely unhealthy habits, I achieved the extreme fitness and aesthetic goals I set myself, yet I was as unhappy as ever. I still saw myself as negatively as I had in my larger body, except now I was also consumed with upholding my rigid lifestyle to keep my impossibly lean physique.
Far from feeling any sense of satisfaction, I felt terrified and trapped in a cycle of over-exercising and under-eating, knowing that the longer I did so, the more damage I did to my body, my mind, my relationships and my metabolism.
Even though I was technically eating what might have looked like ‘enough’, in reality I was in a prolonged stated of low energy availability.
I was not eating anywhere near enough food to support my fitness activities, as well as fuelling other vital bodily functions like temperature regulation, thought processing, digestion and menstruation.
I lost my period, a clear red flag of plummeting oestrogen and a risk factor for early onset osteoporosis. I was constantly injured, starving, and irritable, my skin was perpetually dry and flaky, and I became an absolute nightmare to live with.
Proposals for spontaneous brunch plans sparked terror at the idea of a meal that I couldn’t control or easily ‘burn off’ at the gym. My life became a small, sad shadow of what it had been, and I had given it all up to weigh a few kilograms less and earn the praise of people whose opinions I didn’t even truly value.
People with eating or exercise disorders are often judged as being superficial or vain, but for me it was never really about my body. It was just a far easier thing to focus on than the deep-rooted trauma and insecurities I have experienced since childhood.
Unpacking my unhealthy thought patterns and learning to treat myself with compassion felt too uncomfortable, so instead I tried to bully myself and my body into a shape that society would find acceptable, hoping that when I did so, I would accept myself too.
Far from having the intended effect, I had lower self-esteem than ever. I still had all of my old insecurities, and now I had an exercise addiction, a restrictive and disordered relationship with food, and a huge sense of disappointment in myself.
I believe in accepting and celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes, so why when it came to my own body did my thoughts echo those of my Weight Watcher-enthusiast grandmother? Taking up less space and conforming to unrealistic beauty standards felt comforting in the short-term, but did nothing to address the root of my problems.
My road to recovery – treating the causes, not the symptoms
Seeking help for my unhealthy relationship with exercise and food was the best thing I ever did, even though I felt far from ready to do so. It is very common for people to be in denial about their struggle, or to be fully aware of it but covering it up or lying because they fear going into treatment.
If you think you or someone you know may be struggling with food or exercise, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them if they need help. Voicing your concerns or the negative impacts of the disordered eating or exercise patterns may help encourage the person to acknowledge their struggles and feel safe and supported to seek help.
I had to learn to ignore the voices that insisted I wasn’t ‘sick enough’ to need help, or that my behaviours weren’t ‘that bad’, especially in a social context where weight and diet obsession seems to be the norm. But these voices are liars, and simply another way your illness tries to keep you small, scared and trapped by fatphobia.
Recovery looks different for everyone, and it is important that your journey is tailored to you and includes plenty of support along the way. My recovery began by addressing the underlying causes of my preoccupation with my body image, and working to create a strong sense of self that isn’t tied to my appearance.
I also started working to unlearn the toxic messaging of diet culture, and set boundaries around what type of fitness content I consume, especially on social media.
It was equally important for me to establish a support network, consisting of both mental health professionals and my trusted loved ones. Being vulnerable and open about how your inner circle can support you on your journey is a great way to foster a safe environment for you to heal and recover.
If you choose to engage in exercise during your recovery, it’s important to only choose activities that feel good and supportive to your body and mind. Avoid anything that feels like punishment, such as forcing yourself to run if you hate running.
Hudgson and Ryan also suggest that people relinquish their rigid ideas of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ exercise.
“Practice trying to focus on enjoyable movement rather than strict exercise,” they said.
“Movement can be anything that feels good to you – dance, yoga, swimming, walking, cleaning. It can also be great to have variety in your week and mix things up, or engage in physical activity with a friend.”
Recovery is not usually a quick, linear process, and I definitely have my challenging moments. But even on the most difficult day I have in recovery, it pales in comparison to a life revolving around restrictive meal plans and grueling workouts.
Letting go of my shredded torso and the praise of others is so worth it to be able to share fries with my husband, or stop for ice cream on a beautiful day for no particular reason.
When I struggle the most, I ask myself a simple but powerful question: When I’m on my deathbed, hopefully years from now, will I look back and be glad that I wasted most of my life trying to be physically smaller, or will I be filled with regret at all the wasted years and missed social opportunities?
I would be lying if I said I no longer struggle or feel afraid during recovery, but nothing is as scary as pouring your life down the drain in the futile pursuit of fitness. I promise you, it is not worth it.
Do you need help?
If you are experiencing any difficulties, reach out to your trusted GP or other medical professional as a first point of call. They will be able to provide you with a referral for a counsellor or psychologist to support you in your journey.
For information, education and support services about eating disorders, check out The Butterfly Foundation or the Inside Out Institute. You can also speak to a trained clinician by calling the national helpline for eating disorder support and advice on 1800 33 4673 (1300 ED HOPE).
Feed Your Instinct is a useful interactive tool to support parents who are concerned their child is experiencing difficulties.