[GUEST POST] On I walk: An autistic story of exercise addiction

Written by Ginny Grant

It’s COVID isolation mark one. We’re allowed out for exercise each day but my brain – needing something certain to latch onto in these uncertain times – heard ‘We … I must exercise each day’. And so I walk the streets of my inner-city neighbourhood. Along noisy secondary roads, past the railway line, trains screeching by, past graffitied signs and dilapidated houses reeking of weed, back under the railway line, planes roaring overhead. There’s nothing picturesque about this walk through Inner West Sydney, but that matters little to me: it’s the steps that count.

Oh, those steps count so very much. Tracked every day in a fitness app on my phone – the one my psychologist banned me from tracking my nutrition in, the one I was supposed to have deleted already. I have an unfortunate thing for wellbeing tech. It tends to drive unhelpful thinking, healthy behaviours taken too far.

I’m in recovery from an eating disorder by the name of OSFED – Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder, which in my case equated to atypical anorexia. After many months of recovery work, I tell myself I won’t go back there. I won’t go back to the not-eating thing, no matter how much my brain tells me not to eat this, that … or much of anything, really. I know now to ‘acknowledge those messages but not act on them’. My psychologist’s words ring in my head.

But the desire to make myself smaller hasn’t left me, especially in this time of heightened stress all around me as the world faces a devastating pandemic. And exercise is yet another means to that end. Exercise is healthful, I tell myself. We’re all too sedentary, health experts say. We need to move more. It’s good for physical and mental health!

I continue my circuit. As I walk, I pause to check my steps total is rising. Each time the number leaps up, I am spurred on to walk faster, to cover greater distances. I wonder if I can extend my journey today. Perhaps do a second circuit. Or walk further, make it to the nearby bay. It’s never about the scenery, though. It’s always about physical exertion. Sometimes I wish that I could just walk all day without stopping. I feel a surge of energy in my limbs and pick up the pace.

I am aware my clothing is becoming looser once more and I am pleased. A quick check of the scales – from which I’m also banned – confirms this. I am relieved and ashamed all at once. Tomorrow I’ll take a day off walking, I tell myself. (I won’t.) Or I’ll just take a casual relaxing stroll somewhere nice. (Also won’t.) And I won’t get out those damn scales again. (Not true either.) My head is a bundle of conflicted thoughts and lies I tell myself.

These are just some of the thoughts that circle my head with an exercise addiction, an area of addiction that is on the rise but not discussed nearly often enough.

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the overlap between Autism and eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, but I’ve not heard much about the compulsion to exercise that often accompanies eating disorders. I think of how my Autistic traits play right into the exercise addiction. My black-and-white, detail-focused, uncompromising nature. My love of sameness, repetition. My need for control in a world that is so very unpredictable.

As we come out of COVID isolation, I connect with a new psychologist. Admit that the exercise has taken over, just like the food restriction had the previous year. She tells me ‘we need to work on that rigid thinking’. Apparently exercise is still okay – it’s not the enemy; in fact it’s very good for us – but I need to mix things up. Knock a day or three off my regime. Walk a different circuit. Do the same one in the opposite direction. Take it slowly. Go with a friend. Delete that app.

I take her advice. Break the routine of the everyday walks. At first my brain screams at me, but after a few weeks it’s calmer.

Next time I go out for a walk I notice myself appreciating the beauty along the way. The sun setting over the city’s west. That enormous old pine tree with its broad canopy, like something out of a fairytale. The chatty cockatoos feeding at dusk. I stop and snap a photo on my phone. Instinct tells me to check my steps while my phone is out, but I can’t anymore – I finally deleted that app that tempted me constantly with its false promise of control. And as I walk on, I remind myself that this time I really am choosing physical and mental health.


Ginny Grant is an Autistic writer and editor who is passionate about Autism and mental health advocacy. She is Reframing Autism’s Communications Manager and loves her work amplifying Autistic voices. She lives in Sydney, Australia.

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