I must…I have to…I should exercise!

By Emma Sheens


Source: Pexels 

If someone was to ask you “Hey, why do you exercise?” what might your answer be? Would your response contain phrases like “I must”, “I have to” or “I should”? Do you exercise out of obligation? Do you exercise in order to compensate for eating certain foods? Do you have to exercise a certain number of times per week for a certain period of time each session? Do you get frustrated if you miss a day of exercise? Do you say no to other more enjoyable things in order to exercise? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may hold unhealthy and compulsive attitudes, thoughts and beliefs towards exercise and it might be worth asking yourself if you want to challenge and change these views. I have challenged and changed my own views surrounding exercise and it’s honestly been life-changing!

I used to believe exercise was a non-negotiable, something I had to engage in otherwise I would be unhealthy, inadequate and lazy. Exercise was an absolute essential part of my day-to-day life and was prioritised above and beyond other more enjoyable activities such that, I would put on hold, reschedule or even cancel other things in order to fit in some exercise. I told myself that I must engage in exercise X times a week for a certain fixed period of time each session in order to be healthy. If I missed a session, I would feel dreadful inside and out. Exercise had turned into a chore – painful and exhausting. I used to drag myself out of bed, even though my body was telling me to rest, and would go for a jog in the freezing cold. I used to drag myself along to swimming training and would “have to” swim a certain fixed distance each session otherwise I hadn’t done it right. It didn’t count as a ‘proper’ exercise session. What’s more, exercise had become a determinant of my own self-worth and what I thought of myself as a person. I would have to jog/swim a certain distance or for a certain length of time otherwise I’d failed. I’d not achieved.

My interest in exercise led me to embark on a degree in Exercise and Sport Science. Upon completion of this degree I started working as a personal trainer. During this time I saw many clients who held the exact same unhealthy attitudes towards exercise that I once held. They would be consumed with exercise. Exercise was a “should”, a “must”, a “have to” activity and not a “might”, a “perhaps”, and “I’ll see how I feel” activity. Clients would be so distressed, embarrassed and ashamed to admit they hadn’t exercised over the past week. They would turn up to their weekly sessions with their heads lowered in shame. They felt they had failed both themselves and me, as their trainer. Exercise, for many of my clients, had become a chore that was governing their day-to-day schedule. Exercise had become something that dictated their mood, emotions and feelings and this over-flowed into other aspects of their well-being such as, their own self-worth, self-esteem and self-value. Exercise had become all-consuming, absolutely non-negotiable and entirely compulsive to the point that the associated self-criticism for having not exercised would be a self-perpetuating cycle: individuals felt bad about their inconsistent exercise regime; they felt they must exercise a certain amount each week; they wouldn’t reach this unrealistic goal; they felt awful about themselves and felt as though they’d failed; they’d set even higher standards for the next week (to make up for last week); they couldn’t reach these unrealistic goals; so self-criticism perpetuated.

What I’ve learnt out of my own experience with exercise and through that of my clients is that exercise can be fun, spontaneous and flexible. In fact, once I became aware of what role exercise was serving for me during that time in my life and once I learnt to place my self-worth in more reliable and healthy things, exercise became something of enjoyment for me. Something I could freely engage in without any associated guilt or shame.

Have you ever thought what it would be like to think, feel and believe any of the following?

  • I love exercise. It makes me happy!
  • I love the way exercise helps me clear my head (not fill it up!)
  • I exercise for my well-being and mental health
  • I love being spontaneous, flexible and free to choose when I want to exercise
  • I love being able to say no to exercise and feel utterly okay about this!
  • I love listening to my body and resting when it’s telling me to rest
  • I love walking out the door device free. Just me and my body listening to each other.

If your relationship with exercise is something you might like to explore, we can help you do this. BodyMatters is running the LEAP program designed for just this purpose! ‘Taking a LEAP’ is a six-week activity program aimed at helping individuals to overcome unhealthy attitudes, beliefs and behaviours toward exercise. The program will enable you to feel better equipped and able to regain control of your exercise behaviour, turning it from being something that is unhealthy and compulsive to something that is healthy, balanced and enjoyable.

All sessions are recovery-focused and take place in an encouraging, safe and warm environment. You can expect to build upon skills developed in previous weeks, gradually establishing a repertoire of skills and strategies that will help you to establish healthy, non- disordered and non-compulsive attitudes, beliefs and behaviours toward exercise. I strongly believe everyone can learn how to engage in exercise in a healthy way and I want nothing more than to help others reach that same point I have in my relationship with exercise.

One response to “I must…I have to…I should exercise!

  1. Hi emma!

    Thank you for writing this article – which truly does resonate with me.

    My name is Yan and I’m a 31 year old female, living in Canberra, with my husband, toddler and another to arrive early August.

    I have a 10 year history of anorexia and exercise addiction which began around 19 years of age. I was lucky enough to be officially diagnosed and hospitalised at 28 years of age. With the help of a feeding tube, 2 months of bed rest, group rehabilitation and individual therapy, I was able to attain a healthy weight and have a family (something I never dreamed possible!)

    Whilst my overall eating behaviours are mostly “normal”, my relationship with exercise remains disordered. I believe the only thing stopping me from pursuing my crazy exercise regimes of my “anorexia days” is due to limitations physically (pregnancy) and time wise (taking care of a toddler).

    So, though I am at a healthy weight and don’t appear “disordered” otherwise, my mental and psychological well being is in turmoil. Something I desperately would like to address before baby #2 arrives as i easily slipped into post-partum depression after my 1st was born due to the inability to exercise.

    I have raised my issues with my GP and psychologist; but perhaps because I don’t exercise for hours on end or present with any medical problems, they don’t see anything wrong with me continuing to exercise. Part of me knows that my reasons for exercising and the anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and fear associated with it isn’t “normal” or healthy. Hence, with my husband’s persistence, I went “cold turkey” and ceased all formal exercise (cardio, strength training, etc) over the past week, which has skyrocketed my negative emotions through the roof! I find it very challenging to cope with daily life at the moment and would love to receive some professional guidance.

    I am based in Canberra, so unfortunately I am unable to attend the LEAP workshop this Saturday (24 June 2017) as only came across this website earlier today! I tried clicking on the “Taking a LEAP” 6 week activity program linked above, but it didn’t take me anywhere – so am guessing that program may no longer exist?

    Emma, is there any way I can get help?

    I am currently reading the book “The Truth About Exercise Addiction” by Katherine Schreiber and Heather A.Hausenblaus; I completed the questionnaires in the appendix and if it helps, below are my results:

    1. Exercise Addiction Inventory (Terry, Szabo & Griffiths) : Score of 23 , indicative of a “symptomatic individual”

    2. Exercise Dependence Scale (Hausenblas & Symons-Downs): Scored highest in category of “withdrawal effects” and “lack of control”

    3. Compulsive Exercise Test (Taranis, Touyz & Meyer): Scored highest on subscales of “avoidance and rule-driven behavior” and “mood improvement”

    Anyway, I’ll end my message here and hopefully, hear from you soon! Many thanks for the time you’ve taken in reading this rambly message!

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