What Taking Fitness Too Far Did to My Body—and How I Bounced Back
Fitness It’s been a minute since my article back in 2013 about how fitness saved my life. The last time I shared my story, I had a very different mindset around what made exercise “good enough.” I thought that “enough” meant 5-6 days a week, 45 minutes or more a day. That extreme, all-or-nothing mindset wasn’t just reserved for fitness, either—it was a reflection of how I viewed ev-ry-thang.
Basically, I was struggling with clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and had been since I was a teenager, which brought on a whirlwind of complications. It was only once I combined a consistent movement routine with therapy that I really started to see a shift—as I started falling in love with fitness, I began to notice changes in my body and mind that made me feel more empowered than ever before.
So yeah, fitness has been my savior. But it’s also been my oppressor.
I was also facing another issue at that time: my eating disorder. There was so much in my life that I couldn’t control; I felt like having a death grip on my diet gave me ownership over something. But then it started taking over my life. After making huge strides with my mental health, I started to think of fitness as a requirement for worthiness. It wasn’t helping me handle my disorders anymore—it was making them worse.
Photo: Amy Clover
I was an overachieving perfectionist who placed all my worth in fitness, and it was effing killing me.
It all came to a head in 2015, when I was prepping for a fitness video shoot. It was my first time working on a really big project for a really big company, and I thought to myself: I’m gonna show the world how good I am. But in my messed-up mindset, that meant eating way too little and working out wayyyyy too much to get the body I thought I needed for the project. I completely stopped listening to my body and simply pushed it instead.
Even though I looked the way people expect “healthy” to look, inside was utter chaos. I was obsessed with tracking every single calorie and macronutrient and even more obsessed with the foods I wasn’t allowing myself to eat. I had a Pinterest board full of all the foods that were “off-limits,” which I’d comb through every night in a sick, fantasy-like state. I felt constant anxiety around deciding what to eat and got zero enjoyment whatsoever from the food I chose. But I felt powerful because I was choosing my own flavorless punishment.
And while I had tons of limits for myself when it came to food, workouts had no limits. Often I would work out for two and a half hours at a time on far too little fuel. If I felt like I was going to faint, I was winning. And hey, it “worked!” I got down to physique competition numbers and looked the way I thought I ought to look (well, close—nothing was ever good enough, of course).
I got through the shoot and felt great, even though my director expressed concern at the way I looked. I took it as a compliment. After the shoot was done, however, I felt purposeless. I had this “ideal” body and all the obsessive ish that came along with it, but no one to prove myself to anymore. Without an audience, my motivation started breaking down—and that’s when it all went to hell.
I started binge-eating uncontrollably. I just couldn’t stop. All of the foods that had been off-limits before were suddenly fair game and best served in massive quantities. I’d never felt so out of control in my life, and it terrified me. I finally realized that what I was doing wasn’t normal and, with great shame, went to my mentor to confess what was going on.
She told me flat-out: “You need to get your ass into eating disorder recovery.” People had said this to me before, but I’d just never heard them like I was able to hear her—and thank God I could. It was a huge gut-punch to my ego to admit I needed to go into eating disorder recovery. After all, I was a health coach and fitness personality, damn it. I should know how to manage myself! I should know what’s too much or too little!
There was a lot of shame at the beginning of my recovery journey, but a little tough self-love taught me the most about how effed-up my relationship to food and my body really were. In recovery, I was finally able to take a step back and see my behavior for what it was: a desire to control what other people thought of me. Finally, I began filling the hole that I’d just been plastering up with external validation.
It’s been three years since I reached out for help, and I have changed.
Exercise and food are no longer tools for me to prove something to the world—they’re ways I take care of myself. My relationship with food has become loving and nourishing, and I no longer have any off-limits foods. I never diet, and I’m still at a healthy weight. In fact, my weight is more stable now that I’m practicing intuitive eating.
After some time away from working out, I was able to recognize what kinds of movement I actually liked doing, instead of choosing those that were the most difficult or punishing—which, sadly, is a belief I hear a lot from others too. The kinds of workouts I do now are the ones that feel nourishing to my body and mind. I do yoga, which helps me get out of my brain and into the present, and tae kwon do, which makes me feel like a straight-up badass. Every day of movement is different and centered in how I want to feel now, instead of who I think I should be.
These days, before every workout, I connect with my body. I check my energy levels, ask myself if I’m craving any particular type of movement, and I listen. This practice has built a deep sense of trust and self-love, and with it has come a sense of freedom and genuine empowerment. I don’t need anyone else to tell me what’s good or bad anymore—my recovery has finally given me confidence.
And it feels reeeeeally freaking good.
With all the changes I made in my personal life, I felt like it was necessary to overhaul my business, Strong Inside Out, as well. I tore out all the pieces that aligned with my old all-or-nothing mindset and re-branded the whole dang thing.
Instead of encouraging people to basically “get strong,” our mission now is to help people release shaming, metric-based health standards and work on their health without scales or judgments. No more diets. No more workout plans. Just you and what’s right for you. Period. You don’t have to wait for some future, more “enough” version of yourself to materialize to enjoy life.
Living this way has freed up so much space in my brain that was previously hoarded by an obsession with food and exercise. Taking my power back—not needing to live for anyone else but myself—has been the most amazing transition for my mental, physical, and spiritual health. I’ve come a long way since 2013, and I know I still have more to learn. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m never, evergoing back to working out so that I’m “enough” for someone else.
I hope my story inspires you to look into your healthy habits too—your life shouldn’t be lived for anyone but you.
Amy Clover is a writer, coach, teacher and the force behind Strong Inside Out, a movement devoted to helping you build individual health—mind, body, and spirit—without scales or judgment. Sign up for SIO’s Weekly Motivational and get free goodies straight to your inbox.