There’s a fine line between a healthy relationship with exercise and an unhealthy one – especially in eating disorder recovery. In fact, as many as 75% of ED sufferers struggle with exercise addiction as a way to ‘purge’ calories, reduce the anxiety after eating and/or change their body shape (think body dysmorphic disorder).
I remember how I joined a gym in the early stages of my eating disorder, and I was actually too young to go into the weights section – not that that really mattered, seeing as all I wanted to do was cardio in order to burn off all the calories and melt the fat off my body. So every day after school, I’d walk over to the gym and I would jump on the treadmill and run for hours on end. On an empty stomach.
At first, to the outside world, it would have probably looked like a teenager trying to get fitter. Slightly excessive, but most teenagers are concerned about their body shape, right?
(Honestly though, when is this ‘concern’ going to be seen as the toxic and dangerous relationship that teens are now having with food and their bodies?!)
Before I delve into the ugly role of exercise and eating disorders/BDD, you need to know some of my background health wise. I’ve tried running quite a bit over the years, and at one stage I was actually managing it quite well – I was never a fast runner, but I was enjoying it. However, I am not a runner. I tried to force myself to like it because my boyfriend at the time ran, but in reality, I have exercise-induced asthma that can’t always be controlled with an inhaler, and more importantly this awful pain I sometimes get with intense cardio. I’m talking this excruciating pain in my lower stomach – like period cramps, but 100 times worse. It leaves me feeling light-headed, not knowing if I’m going to be sick, poo myself or pass out. I don’t even know how to describe it, other than I can’t keep exercising and hoping it will go away like a stitch.
It’s thought that this pain might be due to an abnormal lactic acid build up I get, so I take omeprazole, but the diagnosis is not confirmed yet, and hence I am still just testing out whether it helps. This diagnosis has only come about in the past month, with the first doctor I ever went to about this telling me what they had never heard of this before, and that I should consider getting a personal trainer. Ta for that.
This pain, coupled with my lungs deciding they don’t want to cooperate, have left me passed out in a field by myself. So I took to the treadmill thinking that at least then I would be safer – but you can’t really be safe when you’re still running for hours on end with the risk of this pain hitting me, and on an empty stomach. You’d think gym staff would keep an eye on you (spoiler alert: they didn’t).
I vividly remember passing out on the treadmill on more than one occasion. Passing out from the lack of food and the pain and shooting off the end of the treadmill.
Despite all this, I carried on. I kept going. I kept pushing myself.
Once I developed orthorexia, I started high-intensity interval circuits. I pushed myself so hard on minimal food, getting myself to the gym for all the training days of this ridiculous workout plan (you know those really intense ones that recommend you eat the same amount of calories as a child? Yeah, one of those) even if I was exhausted. I got abs – but somehow I wasn’t miraculously happy? I got abs, but it wasn’t enough, and I was miserable and exhausted. This wasn’t the plan.
For so long now I’ve had a bad relationship with exercise, but nobody commented on it because it was deemed healthy – a good lifestyle to have. This is the danger of the #fitspo community because this behaviour is praised. Exercise addiction and over-exercising is something that so easily slips the radar.
So yes, exercise became something that fed my ED and BDD; something that I needed to do because otherwise, I would be drowning in a sea of guilt. But it wasn’t just my mind that was affected by this, it also took its toll on my body. Exercise addiction can really damage your physical health – not letting yourself recover, repeatedly pushing yourself past your limits, causing injuries and long-term health damage. Because of my exercise addiction, I now have back pain daily– I’m only 22 and my whole back cracks numerous times a day, my lower back leaves me in agony, my hamstrings are as tight as anything and my joints lock. This is the reality of over-exercising – it’s praised for being healthy, but the reality is that you’re more likely causing more harm than good.
STEP 1: STOP
A crucial, yet terrifying, part of my recovery journey was to completely stop exercising. This was horrific at first: going from exercising loads to absolutely nothing was both a shock to the system (I really needed to rest and be as sedentary as possible during my weight restoration) and so mentally difficult. Exercise addiction is a mental illness, one which was deeply entwined with my ED, so forcing myself to go cold-turkey was a rollercoaster of emotions. The guilt was unbearable, and the voices screamed at me to move my lazy bum. But I fought and stayed away from exercise.
I voiced my anxieties, struggles and guilt-ridden thoughts with someone that played a huge part in my recovery, and she reminded me that movement will be there ready and waiting for when I’m ready. This honestly helped comfort me; it gave me that safety blanket knowing that this isn’t forever.
Hold onto that thought.
STEP 2: SLOW AND STEADY
Reintroducing exercise is another obstacle to get across when the time is right. Personally, I kept with just walking my furry friend for about 10 months – getting outside and just walking with my fur-baby was so incredibly therapeutic, mainly because I enjoyed it and being outside. After that? I started reintroducing Pilates into my weekly schedule. I would strongly recommend starting with Pilates or yoga when reintroducing exercise, and don’t overdo it! I stuck with a single Pilates class (Top Tip: stick to classes, where there is a set amount of time, so you can’t be tempted to ‘just do another half an hour’, and there’s an instructor there to keep an eye on you) once a week. Honestly, the benefits of this were amazing. Why? Because I love doing it; because it’s 45 minutes I set aside for myself every week that helped relax me and helped my mental health; because I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than I loved how it made me feel.
Being brutally honest: slow, baby steps reintroducing movement is the best way to do it.
Find movement you enjoy. Did I truly enjoy running? Nope. So why on earth did I keep doing it?! There are so many other forms of movement that exist out there, and if you want to incorporate movement into your routine (and for some, they don’t want to – guess what? That’s completely okay too!) look into different things that really excite you. Again, I’d recommend exercise classes purely because there’s an allocated time and there’s an expert there to look out for you. Try different things; try it, don’t like it? Move onto the next activity that you find exciting!
I tried a class that sounded fun but turned out the instructor was quite aggressive and it just wasn’t for me. What did I do? I stopped going.
STEP 3: HAVE SUPPORT
Another great tool in introducing (enjoyable) movement is to do it with a friend – one that looks out for you makes sure you’re still doing it because you enjoy it and truly has your best intentions at heart. Let them know you need that extra support in your recovery journey; it will make the world of difference. Unfortunately I’m off back to University soon so won’t be able to go to the gym with my best friend, but I also know I’m strong enough to go to classes by myself now – something which is crucial as some people may actually hinder your recovery journey by encouraging you to push yourself to the point you used to. Practising self-care also involves setting boundaries, and this is an essential situation to put this into practice. If someone fuels the unhealthy voice when it comes to exercise, they can’t be part of your movement journey. It’s hard doing this, but important. Your safety is number one.
STEP 4: WHY?
Ask yourself – why do you want to reintroduce movement? Is it to help with your mental health? To increase your fitness levels? To get outside into the fresh air? To join a club? To get back to a childhood activity you used to love? If your answer is ANYTHING to do with weight loss or changing your body, then you are most certainly not ready to reintroduce movement. Those are not the motives you need to drive you to move. You’re not ready.
Yoga and Pilates can help with your breathing, posture, mindfulness and mental health. Boxing can help with any frustration and anger you carry around. Running may be something you loved doing because it gets you outside. Exercise is should be enjoyable. It shouldn’t be a punishment for eating or punishment for your body looking a certain way.
Exercise can be an incredible tool if you (want) to use it, and use it right.
Now? I have found the classes I enjoy, that help with my mental health and anger; I don’t overdo it. The reason I want to train is so I can get fitter now – so I can go on adventures like hiking the Grand Canyon. THOSE are signs that you are ready to reintroduce enjoyable movement; signs because they don’t involve your body having to change.
STEP 5: BE GENTLE
It is still hard though – you will most likely still experience guilt sometimes; you’ve had so long of being stuck in this addiction that it’s to be expected though, so don’t be too hard on yourself. I still struggle with guilt if I miss a class, but I’m working through it and challenging it. Last minute plans to see an old friend came up, and I usually have a class that evening. I spent quite a while battling the thoughts of anxiety and guilt that plagued me, but my rational brain (see, this is how I know I’m ready to exercise again) overruled it – my friends, memories, adventures, giggles and simply living my life are more important than a single exercise class.
That exercise class will be there ready and waiting for when you’re ready to go again.
So it’s tricky balancing exercise and recovery, and sometimes the only way to move forward is to stop it completely. I know how hard it is to do that, and I know how hard the challenges of reintroducing movement lie ahead; it’s easy to want to dive headfirst into the intense activities – but remember that your recovery and mental health is more important than exercise. It will be there (and all the other activities that you may actually enjoy!) once you’re ready. And if you don’t want to reintroduce movement? That’s awesome too. Do what’s right for you, and go on your journey at a pace that is right for you.
Take care ladybugs x