Exercise and Virtue

I feel scared to write about this. Not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with exercise but it is a major component for me that I’ve found extremely complex to tackle and deal with. It’s very much still a live issue for me and almost harder than the food restriction element in some ways.

Exercise is almost ubiquitously and unanimously supported in our culture. It is the cure all, a force for good, a force for ‘wellness’ and a morally good person simply MUST exercise. This, for me, seems also tied into fatphobia i.e. societal discrimination against fat people. A large number of people take up exercise with some sort of notion that it will help them to lose weight. Most exercise is marketed as a weight loss strategy in some capacity – ‘feel the burn’, ‘a new (thinner) you’ all of that shit.

The amount of moralism around exercise feels suffocating. The number of times I’ve been told of my ‘virtue’ and ‘discipline’ because I exercise a lot. The number of times I’ve been congratulated for my commitment and my fitness. People wishing they could be as ‘good’ as me for going to the gym. There is this underlying assumption that people who exercise really are more disciplined, more healthy, more virtuous and overall that they are BETTER people than those who don’t exercise.

Where does this notion come from? Why is exercise lauded as this decider of virtue? Before we go any further I’m just going to point out that I obviously don’t think all exercise is, therefore, bad and that it can never help anyone with their mental health. That would be absurd. What I am saying is that I was able to get away with a lot of disordered shit because of the culture we have around exercise and the implicit fatphobia that it contains.

You don’t have to do much digging to discover the number of exercise classes, gyms and sporting activities that market themselves as quick and easy weight loss strategies. You don’t have to do much Googling to find the Top 10 Most Effective Exercises for Losing Weight. Trust me, I’ve done it – probably over a hundred times. I have researched it extensively, desperate to find the most efficient way to get that ugly fat off of my body as quickly as humanly possible. We always want it to be quick because we don’t have TIME for anything else. We need to find the most optimal way to burn through those calories whilst holding down a job, maintaining a household, care responsibilities and all the other shit we have to get done.

But, of course, if you CAN’T fit it all in that’s your problem and you’re just not efficient enough. If you cannot find the time to eat well (5 fruit and veg a day, ‘healthy’ grains, whatever the latest protein bar is) you are simply not trying hard enough. If you cannot find the time to exercise you should be waking up at 5am to run for a miserable half hour before work. Or you should buy this expensive gym membership and pop in during your lunch hour. In this environment, of course, you should be finding the maximum calorie burners in the shortest possible time.

Capitalism takes our time away and then taunts and laughs at us for not keeping up with the never ending list of tasks one should be doing in their private and personal time. It’s in the ruling classes interest that we waste our time trying to diet and exercise as much as possible, leaving us with little energy for anything else. The demand for productive activity outside of the workplace has been realised within ‘wellness’ culture – placing the responsibility for health upon the individual whilst failing to recognise the vast array of complex factors that go into it. Health is now entirely our own responsibility and if we do not behave correctly we have only ourselves to blame.

Hence, even amongst friends there was an entirely uncritical support for me exercising a fuck ton. There is enough awareness that those who did want to comment on my weight but realised this might not be very ‘woke’ of them decided, instead, to comment on how ‘buff’ I was getting. This positive attitude to my increased exercise helped me a lot in hiding my eating disorder in the name of ‘getting fit’ and ‘getting hench’. No, of course I wasn’t trying to be SKINNY, I was just trying to get ripped.

Even after I admitted to my eating disorder most people failed to see how obsessive my relationship with exercise had gotten. I failed to see it, or didn’t want to. I still sort of don’t want to.

My behaviour around exercise is compulsive. I do it every day. I never take rest days (up until recently). I feel that without exercise I cannot ‘justify’ eating food because I need to ‘burn’ it all off again. For months I forced myself into calorie deficit. I exercise intensively and I have many OCD style rituals around my exercise. Get to pool, go to the loo, put my swim cap on in front of the mirror, place my water bottle in this spot at the end of the lane, swim 10 lengths alternating front crawl and then breast stroke, pause, go again, do this minimum six times, get out, go to the loo again. If anything from this routine is disrupted I panic. I cry and curl up into a ball. I can’t handle it.

I exercised so many times when I was sick or injured or just plain exhausted. The idea of stopping exercise, which I am currently trying to do, makes me feel completely terrified. It feels like my whole body is seizing up with the fear and panic. I feel as though I’d rather die, honestly. The compulsion is so intense that after eating more food than usual I feel I want to run around the house, up and down the stairs.

I fucking hate exercise.

It feels so odd to type that. I’m completely obsessed with it, I’ve spent so much time planning my exercise for the week, booking in sessions, spending hours working out. I don’t know if I understand what to do with myself without it. It feels awful to stop. But that’s what I am trying to do because I know it is the only way to break the cycle, the obsession, the OCD rituals surrounding it.

I just want to say that if the idea of stopping exercising for a while makes you feel panicked then you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with exercise. If you keep on pushing yourself even though you know, deep down, you should be resting up then you might have a problem. I don’t blame anyone for this because the attitude that one should always ‘push through’ is everywhere. The idea that not resting makes you stronger, when the opposite is true, gets touted all the time. The idea that one can never do too much exercise is all too common.

I realise that my case is more extreme but I do think the cultures around exercise, competitiveness and heavy focus on weight loss and muscle gain as a goal can be very destructive. The attitude one has towards this obviously has an effect but I’ve found that there are many micro-aggressions regarding this mentality. The idea that one ‘deserves’ a big lunch because they’ve been on a big bike ride. The notion that you should ‘walk off’ your dinner.

A reasonable level of activity and movement is something I think is natural in humans. The reason it’s become a chore is related to the way that one is motivated to do it and the lack of opportunity to do it in an actually enjoyable way. It just feels like something you really should be doing. I’ve noticed a lot of people talk to me about exercise now that I am very thin. More often than not they’ll start talking about how they’ve really been meaning to exercise more, they really should get back to the gym it’s just that they’re struggling for time and fitting it all in. It’s almost apologetic, like they are apologising for being in a bigger body than I am or not doing as much. I find this deeply uncomfortable. But I understand – don’t I also constantly compare myself to others, compare my body to theirs, too?

I don’t know how to do exercise enjoyably yet. Forcing myself to rest and not exercise is truly hellish at the moment and I am struggling with it day by day. I am not always succeeding but making this decision to try and stop is a huge deal for me. My goal is to eventually be able to re-engage with exercise in a joyful way, without any compulsion or dread or anxiety. To rest my body and move my body as I see fit. To fuel my body properly when I do exercise and not see it as a way to burn off any and all fuel I have.

Leave a comment