I Thought Exercising Would Help Ease My COVID-19 Anxiety—Until It Backfired

Photo: Getty Images/10'000 hours
When I was 16, I collapsed on the side of the road less than a mile into a run. I hadn't eaten all day, and was deep in the throes of an eating and excessive exercise disorder that had run my body ragged. It was a wakeup call, and after years of hard work and therapy, I thought I'd put those behaviors behind me for good. Then, COVID-19 hit.

On my third day of social distancing, I woke up and made a list that looked something like this:

  • 9 a.m. #COREntine workout
  • 11 a.m. bootcamp
  • 1:30 p.m. team workout
  • 3 p.m. dance class
  • 6 p.m. run
  • 7 p.m. yoga

For weeks, I thought this hours-long daily workout schedule was the only thing that kept me sane. Sweating it out multiple times a day helped calm my anxiety (because you can't read the news when you're doing burpees), and gave me the sense of normalcy and routine that I needed to get through it. I thought it was a healthy, normal coping mechanism, and I thought it was working.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago, when I found myself on the ground mid-run, replaying the exact same scene that happened 12 years ago, that I realized I had a problem.

COVID-19—and the social distancing practices that have come as a result of it—has created a sort of perfect storm for triggering exercise-related disorders. “This is such a time of uncertainty for all of us, and for many people times of uncertainty trigger high stress and anxiety,” says New York-based Talkspace therapist Jill E Daino, LCSW. "That lends itself to [people] thinking about areas they do have control over...and for many people, that is food, their bodies, and their exercise routines.”

Exercise, of course, isn't inherently unhealthy. There’s a large body of research touting the benefits of exercise for our physical and mental health—both of which are critically important to care for as we face a global pandemic. But all of these feel-good elements, while undeniably important, can blur the line between what's healthy and what's not, which makes it tricky to discern when things shift into disordered territory.

And Instagram is making things worse. It’s become impossible to scroll through my feed on a given day without coming across memes joking about gaining “the quarantine 15,” or telling me that “the best way to stop eating during quarantine is to put on your your swimsuit instead of your pajamas.” These might seem like jokes (grossly fat-phobic, misguided, not-funny ones), but for someone prone to an exercise disorder, they’re a landmine. "What we’re seeing right now is wellness culture and diet culture pandering to people’s vulnerability," says certified eating disorder registered dietitian Anna Sweeney, RD. "The fact that people are coming out and talking about weight gain as a worst-case scenario [during a pandemic] is heartbreaking, because obviously it’s not the worst-case scenario."

It took my collapsing to realize that the practices meant to make me feel good throughout all of this had turned into a problem.

Arguably even more triggering than the “don’t gain weight!” memes—for me, at least—is the constant stream of “get fit!” content that’s flooded social media. Thanks to measures that trainers have taken in the wake of their studios closing, it’s never been easier to access free workouts at home. And surprisingly, much of the negative "bikini body" language that had all but disappeared over the last few years has come back in full force. A trainer whose digital classes I frequent regularly shouts the importance of becoming "quarantine buff, not quarantine fluff," and I'm constantly targeted by ads trying to get me to "sign up to lose stubborn fat." This type of language, says Sweeney, "speaks to people’s general anxiety about what happens when we stop moving."

Because of the influx of free, accessible content, the usual justifications for taking a break from working out—"I’m too tired," "I don’t have time," "It’s too expensive"—no longer exist. “It can make people feel pressured that if they don’t feel like working out, they’re doing something wrong,” says Daino. “Seeing all of these free routines, and things saying ‘you have to move if you’re not going outside!’ can be another form of unnecessary pressure at a time when people feel overwhelmed." Without a normal schedule to rely on, this gives people an endless stretch of hours in the day to pack in one workout after another like I did.

The American Psychiatric Association doesn't officially recognize exercise addiction as an official diagnosis, but Heather Hausenblas, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Jacksonville University and co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addictiondefines it as “excessive physical exercise that’s compulsive and results in negative health consequences physically, psychologically, and socially." The litmus test to give yourself, according to Daino? "When it becomes compulsive, and you know that you can’t not do it, even if you’re sore or just don’t want to, then it’s a problem."

For someone in isolation—as we all are, right now—the complications associated with sussing out excessive exercise issues are compounded even further. “With social isolation, we now don’t necessarily have the checks and balances of a loved one being able to check on [someone's] behaviors and noticing that a change is happening with their eating or exercise,” says Daino. “It’s not something people naturally are going to assess themselves, because they think it’s working for them...It has to become dissonant for somebody to question it.”

It took my collapsing to realize that the practices meant to make me feel good throughout all of this had turned into a problem. I hadn't taken a day off from working out in weeks, had lost a significant amount of weight in a very short period of time, and my body was suffering because of it.

“At a certain point, you have to ask yourself, ‘What purpose is the exercise serving other than getting blood flowing and getting movement?’” says Daino. “Is it being used to avoid dealing with something else—you’re fighting with your spouse, you’re not happy with your WFH job, your kids are driving you crazy, you’re fearful for your parents—whatever those other issues are, what does the exercise allow you to avoid, and what is it replacing?"

Right now, for many people (myself included), the answer is "control." At a time when everything feels so momentously out of control, a regimented workout routine can feel like an easy way to regain it. But as with any sort of compulsive behavior—including eating and substance abuse disorders, which are also at a high risk for being triggered in the current climate—treating anxiety with fitness has the potential to snowball. "For anyone who has struggled with concerns about eating, body shape and weight, or exercise compulsion, this construction of [using it] to cope with any sort of stress and anxiety is only going to magnify [those root issues]," says Daino.

According to the pros, there are healthier things we can do—even in isolation—to allow us to feel like we've got a handle on things. Journaling, meditation, and staying digitally connected can help, and maintaining as much of a routine as possible (a balanced one, not an exercise-centric one) can give us the sense of control we're yearning for. There are also a number of resources available for dealing with exercise-related disorders, including digital therapy platforms like Talkspace and the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline, that people can turn to for professional guidance. And one more thing? Smash that unfollow button, because anyone making you feel like garbage about your body—during a global freaking pandemic—doesn't deserve your time or attention.

"Instead of thinking about physiological or physical expression of health through food and movement, we should be thinking about how are we tending to our whole health," says Sweeney. "The way that we brag about going to the gym, right now, we should be bragging about tending to our mental health."

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