Originally I’d planned to start working on this article as soon as I finished a 40-minute cardio barre class in my bedroom. But once the class ended, some intrusive thoughts crept in. In that moment it seemed almost delinquent not to tack on some extra arms work and a short core routine. And I remember thinking: A longer workout is always better, right?
This kind of thing isn’t unusual for me these days. I’ve struggled to find moderation with exercise for most of my life. But the pandemic-spurred shift to at-home fitness, which still continues for many of us, has added an extra challenge: Pretty much any time can be workout time—and that can be a problem for anyone, such as myself, who had difficulty setting exercise boundaries even before my workout room was also my bedroom.
As gyms closed and workout studios canceled in-person classes during the spring of 2020, at-home fitness saw a meteoric rise in popularity. Home fitness equipment revenue doubled from March to October of 2020, with items like stationary bikes and treadmills flying off the shelves, according to The Washington Post. Combine that with massive spikes in sales of workout accessories like dumbbells and exercise mats, as global market information company NPD Group reported, and a 47% increase in downloads of health and fitness apps from 2019 to 2020, per Sensor Tower, and it’s easy to see that many people’s homes have transformed into their gyms.
For many the shift to at-home workouts has been a welcome change: no need to travel to a gym or jockey for a place in a crowded class. But for others, things have been more complicated.
Just as the pandemic blurred the line between home and office, causing problems for those who tend to answer “one more email” well into the night, it also erased the space between home and gym. And this—making workouts a constant option—can weigh heavily on those who struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with exercise.
While compulsive exercise isn’t officially listed as an addictive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the handbook that serves as the gold standard for defining mental health conditions—experts have described compulsive exercising since at least the 1970s, as a 2017 review published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management reports. This type of behavior is characterized by “uncontrollable, excessive exercise behavior with harmful consequences, such as injuries and impaired social relations,” and it’s a description that calls to mind any number of regrettable workout decisions I’ve made in my life. For instance, I’ve gone running with a stress fracture that ultimately needed emergency surgery, and left birthday brunches early to go work out.
Especially for people who have struggled with exercise moderation, there are indeed aspects of at-home workouts that can make this extra difficult. It can become a “paradox of choice,” in which the availability of too many options can trigger stress and anxiety, Hayley Perelman, PhD, a lecturer in the sports psychology program at Boston University who researches topics like body image and sports performance, tells SELF. These choices on exercise modalities can be overwhelming when you’re at the gym too, but the constant presence of them at every point throughout your day—say, a cycling class on your at-home exercise bike in the morning, a quick dumbbell circuit later, then a stretching routine to end the day—can make the multitude of choices seem even more overpowering.
“When people have multiple workout options to choose from—and multiple times per day in which they can fit in exercise—it can become exhausting to have to decide,” she says.
The flexible nature of remote work or hybrid work also means workouts are no longer circumscribed to certain set times—say, before 9:00 a.m., on your lunch break, or after 5:00 p.m. When you work from home and your exercise equipment is right in front of you, any small break in your work schedule can serve as a potential exercise slot. This flexibility can be great for people who love an afternoon jog or mid-morning yoga break, but for people who have struggled with exercise moderation, it could mean the “opportunity” to tack on extra workouts all day long.
“When people have a few minutes here and there between work assignments or on a lunch break, it may be compelling to exercise multiple times a day,” Dr. Perelman says.
What’s more, the lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing guidelines during the pandemic also thwarted our social lives, leading to increased feelings of isolation and mental health struggles for many of us. In fact, according to a 2021 study of over 20,000 participants published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, people were more than three times as likely to report feelings of severe loneliness during the pandemic than before it.
A huge contributor to this? Social isolation, whether due to living alone or simply being unable to see your friends or family. That meant a social support system which could have played a part in helping keep an exercise compulsion in check likely disappeared or dissipated. For example, when that long-standing weekend brunch date was knocked off your schedule, another “opportunity” for exercise may have appeared in its place. According to Dr. Perelman, while the lack of moderating influences from friends and peers has likely played a role in compulsive exercise during the pandemic, the feelings of isolation and lack of IRL interaction can also push more people to greater social media consumption—and the body comparisons that often come with it.
Thankfully there are things people can do to create healthy fitness boundaries that allow them to enjoy the benefits of at-home exercise without it becoming mentally or physically problematic. Here are some tips that can help.
1. Set time boundaries.
The glut of choices regarding type and timing with at-home workouts can often make exercising at home feel like a free-for-all. That’s why introducing a timing schedule can be a helpful way to avoid the pull to squeeze in additional routines.
According to Dr. Perelman, planning your exercise in advance can help you adhere to moderation. Making a deliberate, conscious decision ahead of time not only gives you a schedule to stick to—thus eliminating an overwhelming number of choices—but can also help reduce feelings of guilt when you take a rest day. (And yes, you absolutely need to take rest days.)
She suggests establishing your workout schedule at the beginning of the week, including the days and times, and choosing specific days to function as rest days.
“You might even plan ahead regarding how you’ll go about your rest day,” she says. “What helps you relax? A good Netflix show? Baking? Knitting?”
This is something I’ve been trying too: I’ve begun keeping a little notebook where I write down my exercise goals for the week every Sunday, and make sure to not only keep the total amount of exercise reasonable, but also mark certain days for complete rest (While there’s not one blanket recommendation regarding rest, the American Council on Exercise recommends scheduling at least one day of complete rest every 7 to 10 days.)
It’s also important to allow for flexibility regarding the type of workout you’re doing in each session, and to bring in diversity to your schedule. (More on that below!) Try to make it a point to check in with how your body is feeling before you decide on a particular workout. For example, if your body isn’t feeling a run one day but is still craving some kind of movement, you may want to sub in a lower-intensity routine—perhaps a mobility-focused virtual yoga class—instead.
2. Keep your spaces separate.
It can be particularly difficult to maintain boundaries in the fitness space if you don’t have walls separating your “living” areas from “workout” spaces, Dr. Perelman says. So one of the best boundaries you can create is a physical one—but it doesn’t need to be as major as a wall to get the job done. Even if you don’t have the space or resources to create a separate fitness room, there are still ways you can delineate work, personal, and exercise space.
Then you can enlist the tools: Storage gear like baskets, crates, or cabinets can help you stash your fitness equipment out of sight when it’s not a dedicated workout time—say, in a closet, under the bed, or tucked away in a cabinet—which adds a small but important barrier between you and an impromptu set of weighted squats.
3. Make exercise something positive, not punishing.
One way to prevent ever-available exercise from taking over is by working to reframe how we think about exercise in general, says Dr. Perelman. In many cases, people who struggle with creating boundaries for exercise often equate it with the mentality that it’s something they must do to “deserve” other things, like eating certain foods, relaxing, or wearing certain clothes.
Instead she recommends focusing on what exercise adds to your life—maybe it’s confidence, stress relief, or a mood boost—and moving in ways that cultivate those feelings. This usually means tapping into your body and your mind to discover what it is that you’re really craving from your movement session. Maybe, for instance, it’s a walk outside or a yoga class that day, rather than an intense HIIT workout or long run.
“Ditch the rules of what you ‘should’ be doing,’” Barb Puzanovova, CPT, founder of the Non-Diet Trainer, tells SELF. “Movement isn’t punishment for what your body looks like, for what you ate, for who you are or aren’t.”
By focusing on what exercise brings to the table, rather than what it needs to atone for, you set yourself up for long-term sustainability and moderation in exercise, says Dr. Perelman.
“When we’re exercising because it’s enjoyable, it can be much easier to avoid over-exercising, because that usually comes from external motivators,” she says. Of course this can be easier said than done, especially for people who have struggled with compulsive exercise or disordered eating in the past—in that case, enlisting the help of a professional can help.
4. Bring flexibility and diversity into your routine.
Incorporating different types of exercise, and allowing for flexibility for them within your schedule can help you avoid compulsive behaviors, as well as help prevent the physical and emotional burnout that can come with focusing solely on one type of exercise, says Dr. Perelman.
Maintaining flexibility is important when dealing with any kind of compulsive behavior—exercise included. That’s because when we’re too stringent around a behavior, we’re not only more prone to overdoing it, but it’s also more likely to act as a disruption for other parts of our lives. But if you keep exercise plans more flexible—whether that means skipping a workout completely or allowing yourself to swap in less-intense exercise as needed instead—you’re able to participate in and prioritize other elements of your life, without ruminating about the workout you may be missing, Dr. Perelman says.
With the importance of exercise flexibility in mind, Lauren Leavell, a NASM-certified personal trainer based in Philadelphia, recommends including different forms of movement and varying lengths of workouts. Think a long walk one day, a quick strength-training routine the next, a dance workout later in the week—as well as building in wiggle room that allows for a schedule change or an impromptu rest day when it’s needed.
“This can help create a better relationship with movement,” Leavell says, while fostering a space for more joyful movement—a space where you enjoy the routines you do when you do them.
5. Curate outside influences.
Fact: Influencers and other accounts on social media can become overwhelming once the algorithm tags you with a fitness interest. If your Discover page on Instagram looks anything like mine, you’re likely bombarded with harmful workout tropes—“The only bad workout is the one you didn’t do!”—and influencers explaining that you can look just like them—if you only did X, Y, and Z too.
Without a thoughtful, edited approach to outside influences, social media messages can take on even more prominence: It’s just your mind and whatever messages you might internalize from the above-mentioned maelstrom. And while curating your feed is important for creating fitness boundaries in general, it can be especially useful when it comes to at-home workouts, since these workouts tend to be more isolating than routines in gyms, classes, or with friends.
Dr. Perelman recommends unfollowing or muting accounts that promote “grind-at-all-costs” attitudes, as well as any that make you feel guilty about your exercise habits.
“No one knows what your body needs besides you,” she says. You owe no explanation for what triggers you, or why something makes you feel bad—if it’s messing with your headspace, that’s enough reason to tap that unfollow button. I’ve been liberal with unfollowing, muting, and even blocking posts or accounts that I find triggering, and it’s definitely helped rid my social feed of psychological landmines.
While culling your social feed can be helpful in setting your boundaries, adding positive accounts to it can be a benefit, too. For instance, following trainers who celebrate body diversity and advocate for balanced fitness can help promote a better relationship with exercise—and these 12 body-positive accounts and fitness programs are a great place to start.
6. Enlist professional help.
If you’ve tried some of the strategies above and you’re still having trouble setting exercise boundaries, it may be time to seek professional help. This might mean a body-positive Health at Every Size (HAES) personal trainer, a therapist, or both.
“A therapist can help you understand the reasons behind any unhelpful exercise habits,” says Perelman. And that, in turn, can help you resolve any underlying issues and build a more sustainable relationship with working out. (If you specifically want a sports psychologist, you can find one through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.)
Striking balance between motivation and compulsion can be challenging, especially because, unlike with other addictions or compulsions, moving your body isn’t something you want to stop completely (at least not forever). But with these strategies in hand, you can work toward shifting your mindset to one that lets you stay active while keeping your home a place for joy, productivity, and relaxation—as well as workouts.
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