When Fitness Becomes Unhealthy

Erin Bahadur Calcium and Bone Health Leave a Comment

I can clearly remember the point when I knew that my love of fitness had gone from productive to unhealthy.

That’s not true — I can clearly remember both the first AND the second time.

The first time was almost 10 years ago when I was living by myself in grad school. Unable to sleep, I woke up, put on a workout DVD, and pounded out squats in my underwear because I didn’t feel like I had done enough while the sun was out.

The second time was after I entered recovery for drug and alcohol addiction — a whole other story in itself. Although I was no longer polluting my body, I was still polluting my mind with thoughts of trying to control the outside to fix the inside.

I was on a running kick at that time and developed a stress fracture after running two 12-mile days back to back. “If one is good, two must be better!” I thought. I stepped out of bed after the second day and was unable to put weight on my left leg.

In both of those incidents, I knew my behavior was abnormal. I knew the thought processes driving my actions were coming from a place that wasn’t beneficial. It took some time after both, but eventually I was able to get help and work to reshape my relationship with fitness.

For many years, that relationship was based around my desire to create the perfect outward appearance. I convinced myself that as long as everything was put together on the outside, no one would know that I was having problems on the inside.

The problem was that the closer I got to my arbitrary goals, the less happy I would become. If I reached a goal, suddenly that goal would change so that I was always working towards something that ultimately became unachievable. The better I looked physically, the worse I felt mentally and emotionally.

Since by this time I was already familiar with the principles of recovery that I took away from 12-step meetings and rehabs, I knew that if I wanted to get better I had to ask for help. I let others in and explained to them my behaviors and obsessive thought patterns. I went back to meetings. I slowed down.


There is a difference between “just exercising a lot” and needing professional help to break a destructive cycle. For me, I knew I needed to get help when:

It’s all I could think about

My thoughts revolved around when I could work out, how I would work out, and what I would eat on a daily basis. I kept a separate calendar for running and was only satisfied if I ran farther or faster than I had previously. If I missed a day at the gym, I felt panicked and anxious.

My motivations were skewed

I had no intention of exercising to be healthy — in fact, my weight loss bordered on unhealthy. I did it to look a certain way which I thought would make me feel better on the inside.

Today I exercise because it’s an hour out of the day that is just mine. It’s an hour I can use to push myself to work harder and grow stronger each day.

It affected my relationships

My behavior caused my husband (then boyfriend) to make comments about how frequently I worked out and how I was eating. He would often point out that I should be resting more than I was and that we weren’t able to spend as much time together because of the amount of time I spent at the gym.

Even just reaching out and letting others into what I was experiencing took a lot of pressure off myself. While that certainly helped, it wasn’t an overnight fix. I had to learn how to shift my relationship with exercise to one that enriched my life rather than took away from it.

Today, among a number of other titles, I am a personal trainer and group exercise instructor. I chose this field after going through my own struggles because I wanted to be able to help others in their own journey. I wanted to be able to show them that exercise is something that should add to your life, not subtract.

I work out anywhere from 4-5 times a week, but my relationship with fitness has shifted. I no longer do it to punish my body or change it into something that I think it should be. I do it to feel better mentally, emotionally, AND physically. I’ve shifted away from running — something I used to force myself to do for hours. Instead, I love seeing my strength increase and find the workouts that I enjoy doing. I listen to my body and I rest when I need it without any semblance of guilt.

It has taken my own shaky journey through health and fitness for me to come out on the other side and give back the same lessons that I’ve learned over the years.

If you suspect you may have an issue with exercise, reach out for help. Let a friend or family member know or seek out related help online.