Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and this post was not written to offer professional advice about exercise and recovery, rather, it was written based on personal experience. Please consult your primary doctor and/or Registered Dietician to figure out what exercise, if any, is healthiest for both your body and mind, especially if you are battling or in recovery from an eating disorder of any kind.
This topic is one I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now, and I’ve been given the perfect window of opportunity to do so considering quarantine has unleashed all sorts of unhealthy talk on social media about exercise, weight, and eating. People are joking about how the 19 in “COVID19” should stand for the number of pounds you’ll gain in quarantine and every social media app seems to be plagued by at-home workouts and diet plans. I suppose by now it shouldn’t shock me that society would use a pandemic as a way to make us feel bad about ourselves, but it goes without saying it can be quite triggering for people who have battled eating disorders – heck, it’s even unhealthy for those who haven’t.
Through the years I’ve become more open on social media and in my writing about my recovery, and because of that, I often receive questions about maintaining a healthy relationship between exercise & recovery. I wanted to write about that today because I think it’s important, especially right now. Even if you don’t have or have never had an eating disorder, it’s my hope that maybe you can take something away from these words, too.
I want to preface this post by saying that not everyone in recovery finds it beneficial or healthy (whether physically or mentally) to practice any type of exercise, and that is okay. If you are one of those people and you believe that conversation about exercise will be triggering for you in any way, please do click away now – I want you to do (and read) only what is helpful and not hurtful to you. This post is also not a blanketed suggestion for everyone in recovery – everyone’s journey is unique, this post is simply about mine.
Because I am not a professional, I want to briefly put in a plug for those who are. No matter who you are, I highly recommend at least knowing of a registered dietician you can call on if you ever need or want help with disordered eating, exercise, or weight inquiries. I have had a dietician on & off since freshman of high school when I was first diagnosed with anorexia and I can say with confidence I owe my health to her and all the doctors who were on my treatment team – they took care of my health when I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I may be years deep in recovery now but I still check in with my dietician once or twice a month, because she helps me not only maintain but progress in recovery. The dieticians in my life are honestly the reason I know what a healthy relationship with exercise & food looks like.
When it comes to the type of exercise you engage in, my biggest piece of advice is to figure out what you love to do and then do whatever that is – you don’t have to get all creative or feel pressure to do these intense or complex work outs in the gym, although you totally can if you want. The only form of exercise I do regularly is running, because the only form of exercise I enjoy, is running.
When it comes to exercise in recovery, your mentality is everything. When I say mentality, I’m referring to your intentions and reasons behind why you are exercising.
I used to exercise because I hated my body. I used to abuse it and use exercise as a punishment for eating or for my weight not being as low as I wanted, even when I was dangerously underweight. I would run until I would nearly faint, I would run after not eating all day, and I would ignore any and all physical signs from my body telling me it was time to stop. My eating disorder had me believing I was exercising to help my body when in reality I was slowly killing it.
Today I run (and eat) because I love my body & because I appreciate what it’s capable of doing – running for miles, getting me from point A to point B, breathing, thinking, ministering, studying, & one day creating & carrying another human being, something my doctor used to tell me I would lose the ability to do if I continued on the path I was on. Today I take care of my body and run to make it stronger, acknowledging that my body’s strength is a result of my recovery. Today I push my body, but not to the point of exhaustion – there is a difference between pushing your mind and pushing your body, and there is a difference between pushing yourself in a healthy way and pushing yourself in an unhealthy way. Knowing those differences requires you to constantly be checking in with your mind & body and discerning what your rational thoughts are and what your disordered thoughts are –
Ask yourself: Am I physically weak? Can I breathe okay? Does my chest hurt? Are my extremities okay, or are they tingly/numb? Is my mind telling me to stop or is my body? Is my eating disorder telling me to keep going even though my body is telling me to stop? Why am I starting? Why am I continuing? Why am I stopping?
While I love running and it’s good for my mental health now, it was not always good for my physical health. Exercise is a good and healthy thing but it becomes quite the opposite if you’re not feeding your body. That’s why exercise in recovery requires more rational thinking and checking in with yourself than it does for the average person.
When it comes to your mentality, I encourage you to ask yourself questions such as: Why am I wanting to exercise today?” “Is it because I think I ate too much?” “Is it because I want to lose weight?” “Is it because I feel “full?” “Is it to burn the calories I’ve eaten today?” “Is it because I think I look bad today?” “Is it to punish my body for something I ate or something I did?”
If the answer to any of those questions is “Yes,” challenge yourself to find the strength within you to say, “Okay then – I’m not working out today.” If you answer yes to any of those questions but work out anyways, you give in and feed the eating disorder, and we don’t want that. By saying “Nope, I am not working out for the wrong reasons” you’re rebelling against the disorder (go you!)
Of course we all need to eat in general, but if we’re working out, we need to eat even more, because the more we burn, the more we need to consume, right? You have to fuel your body not only for your mental health but for your physical health, too. When I had my heart scare in the midst of a rather low point in my recovery, I finally started to view my recovery and physical health as top priority in my life, truly as a life or death situation. Eating became something that was & still is always none negotiable. It was a terrifying experience, but I’m thankful for the new lens it gave me.
My running has increased since starting grad school, but so has my food intake, which was honestly largely due to the fact that when I started grad school, I was quickly smacked in the face with the reality that I couldn’t continue eating as little as I was and expect to successfully complete the workload. Again, eating enough continued to be none negotiable, and I could and still can tell the difference when I run – I’m stronger, my endurance is higher, and I can run longer & further.
Something I definitely don’t want to do in this post is give off the false idea that this is easy, or that it happened overnight, because it isn’t, and it didn’t. It takes months and years of support and mental, emotional, and physical work. But you can do it. If you’re wondering how you might start incorporating exercise into your life in the midst of recovery, consult your doctor(s) and/or treatment team and be working on your mentality. One thing I have found helpful is steering clear of numbers – I personally find it best for me not to have something that keeps track of my numbers when running, so I don’t have a fit-bit or an apple watch, nor do I have any app on my phone that tracks how many calories I burn. I also don’t own a scale; I don’t know my weight and I haven’t known it in about a year now. Numbers are simply not helpful to me, which I’m sure every person reading this today who has a history of an eating disorder can relate to.
I encourage you also, just as my dietician encouraged me, to have outlets besides one’s that involve exercise – you don’t want to depend on exercise as the only thing to help you escape or make you feel better. Exercise addiction is a very real thing and very common in eating disorders. Allow yourself to skip days of working out – acknowledge and address if/when you feel like you have to work out every single day, especially in order to eat. This goes back to your mentality. Remember you don’t have to earn your food, you don’t have to work out in order to be deserving of food, and you don’t have to have worked out in order to be allowed to eat. We need to eat whether we work out or not.
Incorporating exercise into your life again after entering into the daunting, beautiful, terrifying journey that is recovery is difficult & tedious – have grace with yourself, and always put your eating and recovery first. Exercise is a choice, just as recovery is, and exercise has the power to help or harm you – you decide which it is. Running for me went from being harmful to being a healthy outlet, only after a lot of hard work. Its become a stress reliver, a healthy anger-reliever, a discernment tool, and something to get my mind off of life when I need to; it’s something that forces me to focus on nothing but inhaling and exhaling, the trail before me, and the nature around me. Running has shown me how strong my body is as a result of recovery, and that is a beautiful thing – something I am forever grateful for. It’s something that is possible for you, too. I believe in you.