How I Use The Gym To Manage My OCD

Photo by Bo Bo

We’ve all experienced those situations of momentary neuroticism. Whether it’s feeling the need to open every message so that red icon on your iPhone screen goes away or getting anxious when a picture hanging on the wall is just askew, at some point we’ve all uttered the phrase "I am so OCD." As someone who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, let me shed some light on what that statement actually means.

The primary difference between having OCD and merely experiencing OCD tendencies is that for people diagnosed with the condition, these "little quirks" can consume your life.

I’m cognizant that some of my rituals might be excessive or unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean I can always exercise control over them.

Around my freshman year of college, I discovered weight training. In the years since, it has evolved from a casual hobby to a core characteristic of my persona. And beyond any physical benefits I’ve received as a result, the role fitness has played in helping me cope with my OCD is even more remarkable.

For everyone with OCD, the condition manifests in different ways. For example, I’ve never felt the urge to keep every item on my desk in perfect symmetry, and I have no irrational fears that myself or a loved one are in imminent danger of some horrific accident. No, my condition manifests in the form of numbers. I count...everything. I count the number of steps it takes me to get from my bedroom to the kitchen (18, in case you were wondering), and I can tell you how many stairs you need to climb to exit the subway station I use every single day (46). Exhausting, right?

But almost counterintuitively, this ritual is actually quelled by my activity at the gym—a place where everything is numbered, ordered, and moves in a logical trajectory.

My daily practice of counting repetitions, using weighted instruments, and performing a specific volume of exercises has truly helped me keep my OCD at bay.

The desire for control is a primary attribute of anyone with OCD. When external factors arise that are out of your control, a dissonance occurs that, for someone with the condition, can spiral into severe anxiety and even prevent you from living your life. This is why the gym is such a sanctuary for me. When I pick up a 20-pound dumbbell, I know exactly how it’s going to feel in my hand. I know how much force I need to exert to move it in any direction, and I know (approximately) how many repetitions I’m capable of performing with it for a given exercise. In a world of distractions, unknown variables, and unpredictable outside forces that can throw adversity into your life, this is one of the most reliable constants I have.

So while an environment that relies on numbers and order may seem like a nightmare for someone who’s consumed by these concepts 24 hours a day, I've found that it can actually be a place of solace.

For me the gym is a place that satisfies that compulsion for control, so I can go about the rest of my day feeling just a little less of an urge to count the steps down into the 34th Street train station.

Because of this, I’ve grown to actually embrace my OCD, letting it be the motivating factor for my meticulous fitness routine. I’ve learned how to not just tolerate the obstacles it creates but use them to my advantage. Were it not for OCD, I may have never adopted exercise as a resolute habit in my daily life, a habit whose benefits are objectively good for me and go well beyond anything physical. So in a way, I can actually treat this mentally rooted ailment as a reliable, unyielding source of mental clarity.

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