How my commitment to fitness almost destroyed my health

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.

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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.

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“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’.