Calories in, calories out — that's what weight is, right? This is what the experts tell us over and over again. It's no surprise, really, that many people are developing distorted relationships with exercise — why wouldn’t it be okay to eat a whole pizza, as long as we burn it all off afterward? But, a growing amount of evidence has shown that this mindset can quickly become a slippery slope, and exercise can turn into something far more dangerous. Experts have coined the term “exercise bulimia,” or compulsive exercise, to describe the phenomenon of obsessively burning off the calories you consume.
What makes someone an "exercise bulimic"? Kristina Saffran, co-founder of Project HEAL, a nonprofit that helps provide treatment for teen girls suffering from eating disorders, says, "They will find time to exercise at any cost, often skipping out on social events or extracurricular activities to get in their daily run. They feel anxious or guilty if they are unable to exercise or if a routine is unexpectedly cut short." The key here, though, is the motivation behind it: As Saffran says, "They exercise primarily to control their weight or 'make up' for calories they have already eaten or are about to eat.”
Even as a child, I had always had a dysfunctional relationship with food, one that could best be described as compulsive. I didn't really know what it was to be hungry or full. I ate as much as I felt like eating, whenever I felt like it, until I couldn't eat any more. Looking back, it was because eating was one of the few things that made me feel good. I became addicted to the way pizza or bread or cookies lit up my brain, making me forget, for just a moment, how unhappy I was growing up as the fattest kid in my class.
When I discovered exercise at 17, I thought I had found God. I had just come out as gay and was faced with the task of really looking at myself through the eyes of potential boyfriends and sexual partners. Needless to say, I was horrified by what I saw.
Miraculously, once I got over the initial hump of being embarrassingly out of shape, I genuinely grew to love exercise. I found that keeping to a routine and pushing myself each day made me feel good about myself. As I chugged away on the elliptical and the pounds melted off, I basked in the glory of accomplishing something I never thought I could, of finally finding something in my life that I could be proud of. Working out was a source of constant empowerment that never let me down. Whenever I felt depressed or stressed out, I went to the gym, desperate for a hit of endorphins and some fresh self-respect. And, it made me feel better. Every time. It was like magic. In less than a year, I lost 60 pounds.
Of course, looking back, I can see that the compulsive part of me had found the perfect outlet. My beloved cardio machines, with their prominent displays telling me just how many slices of pizza my workout was worth, became a game, a way for me to push myself further and further every time. And, as my weight stopped being the issue, my eating habits got even more out of control. At some point, working out stopped being about making me feel good — instead, I went to the gym so I would be able to eat whatever I wanted. Unsurprisingly, I became prone to bingeing. Somewhere along the way, working out became a very real way of purging myself of the sins I'd committed the night before. Two hundred more calories on the arc trainer, I thought, until I got to 2,000 for the day. Huff, puff. Sweat. Repeat.
Spending even a few minutes on any pro-ana forum makes this connection abundantly clear. One myproana.com user recounts her experience: "I used to have bulimia and I would puke and workout and use laxatives and ugh....I hated it. So I stopped eating, stopped puking, stopped the laxatives....but I can't stop the exercise. I just have to do it every day. I had to cut back because I was working out 8 hours a day and I was passing out a lot...and I haven't gone to the gym for more than 6 hours since then, but even still, it's an abnormal day if I don't go for at least 2 hours. I just never saw it as bulimia, you know? I mean, I'm just working out."
The problem, Saffran says, is that we're programmed to see exercise as a universally positive thing. "From a public-health standpoint, exercise is great and something that the majority of our population should engage in much more. Compulsive exercisers hear this same messaging about exercise being the great panacea for all evils, which makes it harder to question when their exercise becomes compulsive and out of hand." And, shows like The Biggest Loser make it seem like working out will not only make you lose weight but will completely transform your mental health and relationships. Look no further than the latest TBL winner, Rachel Frederickson, for a perfect example of what happens when the prevailing wisdom goes very, very wrong.
Over the last few years, though, I've eventually come to an uneasy equilibrium. At some point, I realized that my preoccupation with calories was getting in the way of my own success, my own sanity. I do still binge sometimes, and I often end up working out the next day. But, I no longer keep a running tab on myself. I eat when I’m hungry, I stop when I’m full. In short, I live my life.
A few weeks ago, I was running in Brooklyn when I fractured my left foot. When I found out I would have to be off my feet for six weeks, unable to get in my daily workout, I was more upset than I'd like to admit. Yes, I was sad to lose one of the few stress-relievers I have to choose from in my life. But, more than anything, I was anxious to see how I would do without my safety net. Would I binge? Would I balloon? Would I go into a tailspin? In fact, the time off has forced me to think more deeply about how I see my body and how I interact with food. Like so, so many others, I’m an imperfect, dysfunctional product of a culture that is equally, impossibly obsessed with both food and thinness. And, in a strange way, simply acknowledging that fact has made it easier for me to navigate the push and pull of both.
During this time without my precious cardio, the world hasn't caved in — and, even better, I can still look at myself in the mirror. I still ache to be up and about, but now, it's less about the urge to burn calories and more about being active, about being my best self. I've realized that all this time, I had forgotten how much I actually loved being physically fit, healthy, and strong — and how proud it made me feel. I look forward to the day when I can feel that way again.