Compensatory Exercise Isn’t Healthy, It’s a Disordered Eating Behavior

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It’s common knowledge that life-enhancing movement contributes to personal health. But if fitness is pursued mathematically and obsessively at the expense of mental, social, and emotional peace (all having proven effects on physical health), it probably won’t yield the outcomes we’re hoping for.

That’s because exercise is, in and of itself, a stressor. And while the human body often experiences a variety of positive benefits from working out, those benefits are easily inhibited by things like body shame, dieting, guilt, obligation, exhaustion, and overwork.

Thankfully, movement doesn’t have to be daunting or punishing. And likewise, we don’t have to experience negative emotions around it. Exercise can be uncomplicated, intuitive, and fun without all the focus on sets, reps, pounds, and calories burned.

But, that’s not how we have been culturally conditioned to view it. Instead, we’ve come to believe that exercise is a response to eating and that the two should have a direct relationship.

In explicit and implied ways alike, we’re told that the energy we consume is the energy we must expend, “earn it or burn it” and all that nonsense.

Just recently, news broke about a research report in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health concluding that “physical activity calorie equivalent food labeling” (which is just a fancy term for denoting how much physical activity is necessary to burn off any particular food item), in addition to existing nutrition labels, may be an effective way to encourage people to make “healthier” dietary choices.

This opinion was based on study results revealing reduced caloric intake when subjects consumed foods labeled with corresponding exercise values. For instance, a candy bar wrapper noting the number of running minutes necessary to “burn it off” or a soda bottle detailing how many miles you must walk to “make up” for the drink.

And while I could write an entire blog post about the misnomers, biases, and deficiencies in the study and rant about the obvious fatphobia, classism, and disregard for nutrition inherent in the headlines – I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the pitfalls of compensatory exercise instead.

Because whether food labels eventually display physical activity calorie equivalents or not, for most people experiencing dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders, paying penance with exercise is a common occurrence.

Calorie Math is Everywhere

Calorie math, the concept of energy intake and output as a means of manipulating weight and cultivating a narrow and misinformed definition of “health,” is everywhere.

It’s regularly communicated on social media in the form of festive infographics displaying the exercise exchange rate in your kids’ Halloween treats, the number of sit-ups necessary to offset a candy cane, and the elliptical minutes required to pay penance for a bubbly New Year’s Eve toast. It’s also the primary concept behind “fitness” apps and trackers.

The general notion is that your body can be controlled and diminished into well-being with a simple calculation. Individuals are encouraged to enter every morsel of food they eat, and every minute of exercise they perform into their smartphones as data. This data then calculates the remaining food intake allotted for the day or the caloric expenditure required to meet an arbitrary, and often dangerously low, total calorie goal.

Calories in, calories out. It’s as simple as that, right? Not even close. What these apps, trackers, and infographics don’t take into account is a person’s unique energy requirements for everyday physical tasks. Things like wound healing, hair and nail growth, thought processing, breathing, digestion, proper hormone function, cellular reproduction, and non-exercise activity.

They also do nothing to acknowledge the metabolic dysregulation that occurs when people eat too little and work out too much and fail to highlight the risks inherent in these practices. Risks like injury, fatigue, nutrient depletion, and the development of eating disorders.

Not to mention calorie math, and the mediums that perpetuate it, dehumanize our eating and exercise behaviors, and foster transactional ideas around movement, morphing physical activity from a pleasurable experience to a punitive one.

The practice of working out to compensate for calories consumed (compensatory exercise) is common among disordered eaters and those suffering from negative body image. It’s often performed to ease feelings of guilt and shame when an individual eats beyond predetermined amounts, consumes disallowed foods, or binges.

Compensatory exercise goes hand-in-hand with restriction and dieting. It sends the message that food is bad and eating must be earned. And, even when it’s not systematized by way of an app or “health” tracker, the mental and physiological stress inherent in treating exercise as a form of caloric currency is far from healthy.

So, What’s the Solution?

What can you do if you find yourself determining your exercise goals based on your food consumption?

Stop, and consider practicing intuitive movement instead. Intuitive movement is a body neutral approach to exercise that doesn’t focus on weight or appearance. Instead, it promotes knowing and responding to physical signals, breaking the cycle of transactional, calorie-compensating workouts, and healing your relationship with fitness for good.

It’s not about numbers; it’s about noticing and obliging how your body wants to move. So, forget the Fitbit, tracking apps and “distance per donut” rhetoric. Intuitive movement gives you permission to stop prioritizing pounds lifted, reps completed, calories burned, days worked, duration, distance, or pace and allows you to shift attention to other, more personal motivations for movement instead.

Motivations like:

  • Mental clarity
  • Bone strength
  • Flexibility
  • Time in nature
  • Connection with friends
  • Stress relief
  • Energy release
  • Embodiment
  • Adventure
  • Fun
  • Whole-person health

Rather than focusing on the activities you think you “should” be doing to control or alter your body or achieve particular fitness goals, intuitive movement encourages you to move your body in ways that you actually enjoy. Championing also the restorative, reparative nature of rest and supporting you in consciously incorporating breaks into your schedule with as much conviction as you do workouts.

Practically, this might look like covering the elliptical screen at the gym, relying on body signals (rather than pre-designated distance or duration) to determine the length of a run or walk, and choosing workouts based on life’s ever-changing social and environmental factors.

It could mean swapping your daily gym session for a game of soccer with friends, leaving class early or modifying movements in response to physical injury or fatigue. You might choose to forgo Pilates to make time for a warm bath. Or, take a short walk break with colleagues rather than sacrifice sleep to attend an early morning boot camp before a demanding day at work.

No matter your unique preferences and circumstances, exercising intuitively and practicing freedom with movement means partnering with your body to avoid the unwanted outcomes of forced, punitive workouts by shifting your focus to non-calorie, non-weight goals instead. This positive and sustainable practice is all about centering your body’s specific needs (not the diet industry’s impersonal numbers) with every physical activity you engage in.

Simply put, it means elevating quality over quantity when it comes to “working out” because compensatory exercise isn’t healthy, it’s a disordered eating behavior – no matter what our social media feeds and future food labels might say.


Originally posted at Seven Health, HERE.

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