Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery

This is a nuanced topic. Of course there’s no denying the benefits of exercise in promoting good mental and physical health. Unfortunately, there’s also no denying that it can often be abused in harmful ways as part of an eating disorder. Once again, I am not a health care professional and the ideas/opinions I share are just that of my own experience and research (studying psychology and biology in school.)

I recommend more than anything, to talk to your doctor, your therapist, dietician, etc (Anyone helping you in your recovery journey) about how exercise can be good for YOU.

First of all, the idea that exercise is good for weight loss isn’t entirely true. Exercise has been proven to be beneficial for so many things aside from losing weight. Exercise helps your maintain your healthy/natural weight. Exercise promotes cardiovascular health, reduces feelings of anxiety and depression, and can boost self esteem to name a few.

In many cases, reintroducing exercise should follow or co-occur with an attempt to redefine exercise’s role in your life. It’s without saying that this can be difficult. It will take time. When you have used disordered behaviours for so long, it can be hard to develop them into something that is truly healthy.

What I have been taught as part of my recovery is that exercise should reflect not only your capabilities but also your values.

These are a few of the more important things I’ve learned:

Movement does not have to look a certain way!

There are so many people you can look to on the internet – (Instagram, YouTube wherever) telling you that the way THEY train will work for YOU. One small problem we often forget is that in many cases training and working out is their primary job***. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to realize there are many other things I want (and need) to prioritize before I work out that much. Not to mention how different every persons abilities and bodies are!

Screw diet culture that’s wrapped up in “fitness” labels. Our society often promotes the use of disordered behaviours (or those that are dangerously close). For example, “rest is for the weak”, or “get a beach body”, “no rest days”, “only one cheat meal a week” – ENDLESS RULES. If there’s anything I’ve come to realize about my disordered and unhealthy life, is that I was controlled by rules. You think it gives you control but really they control you. So ascribing rules, to exercise also, limits your ability to fully listen to your body and live a flexible life. Some people might be okay living a life of macro counting and #gymratliving but many of us (likely those reading this post to begin with) have a tendency to take things too far and may not be able to adopt this kind of lifestyle.

Movement can have meaning.

I’m currently working on redefining what movement means to me and what I can achieve with exercise beyond trying to manipulate my external appearance.

Turns out, exercise can be fun… who would have thought!

So often the true benefits get lost, maybe muddled up with societal pressures or taken over as a harmful coping mechanism associated with many eating disorders.

One approach to redefining movement in your life is think of what you value. Spending time with friends?

Spending time alone?

Challenging yourself?

For example: a few things I enjoy are getting fresh air and sun and connecting with friends … SO, in redefining what movement is in my life I’m replacing some workouts with walking to school or going on hikes. I’m introducing yoga classes I can do with friends.

I realize these examples seem to be the stereotypical versions of “self care” but If your version of this is gardening or drumming aggressively, whatever, that’s fine too.

It’s really that simple (in theory). Do what you enjoy, don’t do too much, and if you don’t feel like doing it – don’t.

Exercise in general, has NOT been shown to be an effective weight loss strategy. The main benefit of exercise is that it enables your body to do its thing. Exercise promotes normal and healthy functioning of your body. It allows your lungs to breathe, your heart to beat, your mind to think clearly, and your food to be used for energy.

REINTRODUCTION —— exercise in recovery, in short my recommendation is not to do it. If you’re trying to gain weight, it’s counter productive. If exercise was part of your disordered behaviours it feeds into bad habits if you haven’t yet learned to cope with them. Even if it never was part of your coping strategies, it’s a slippery slope and could very well end up being harmful for you. Your body has endured so much, giving yourself as much rest as possible will make recovery better. You need to repair damage, and resting is the best way to allow your body to do just that.

> When you’ve been deemed “all clear”(ie from your family doctor or therapist or anything) it’s best to return to exercise with a plan. Avoid going overboard by setting yourself limits. 45minutes to an hour, MAX 4 times a week is what i have discussed with many health care professionals as being the recommended upper limit. Write out a plan of some movement you would enjoy doing. Make it consistent with your values. Once you’ve met your time goal – end it. It may not feel good to walk out of a workout wanting to do more, but the reality is that our temperament is one which pushes us beyond what we need or truly want.

Don’t rush it – in my recovery journey I went longer than I ever have in my life without movement. But you can honestly never rest too much when you’re recovering.

> Exercise is recommended to only be reintroduced when you can consistently follow your eating plan and have established somewhat helpful coping mechanisms.

Hold yourself accountable. Or ask a friend or family member to. If you haven’t followed your meal plan – no exercise.

You may likely also need to consult with your doctor or dietician to make sure that upon reintroduction of exercise, you are sufficiently fuelled and eating enough. Your intake may have to be increased.

> Try and be in the moment.

In theory this is easier once you have decided what form of exercise you might enjoy, and what aligns with your values. Focus on these. Focus on the good things and the feeling of a healthier body. It will be hard at first after time off. But eventually, if you’re truly healing, your body will be stronger and healthier, and enjoyment of exercise will be easier. It will feel like less of a punishment.

> Question your urges. when you have the urge to exercise, question it! It will take a while to be able to truly listen to your body like those who never exhibited disordered behaviours. you have been ignoring your natural cues for a long time now, so trying to recognize where your motivations come from is crucial. (Some clinicians say it can take a year on average to even start relying on hunger/energy signals again).

Some questions to ask yourself before you get moving:

??? Is this compensation for food?

???? Do I feel guilty or the need to punish myself?

???? Do I genuinely ENJOY doing this?

???? Am I approaching the limits of what is too much for my time? For the week?

???? How does my body actually feel? Am I tired? Sore? Stiff? I am holding tension? (This takes time to recognize, but I promise it’s how we’ve evolved to survive so it is possible).

??? Can I do something else and still feel the benefits of getting my heart rate slightly up, reducing some anxieties or am I trying to stick to a disordered behaviours? A rigid plan sets you up for instability and disaster if your plan is broken. Can you change your activity? Go on a walk? Dance? Garden? Would fresh air or a shower or something else help your mood?

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