Does Exercise Have a Place in Eating Disorder Recovery?
Eating disorder recovery is a unique process. An eating disorder is an addiction in the same way that alcoholism or gambling is an addiction. The difference is that for folks with other types of addictions recovery means abstaining from alcohol, gambling or whatever they may be addicted to. If you have an eating disorder it’s not that simple. We all have to eat. Every day. So if you’re struggling with an eating disorder a huge part of recovery is learning how to eat in a healthy, balanced way as well as changing your thinking patterns & feelings around food. Which is no small task.
The same is true for exercise. Moving our bodies is an important part of life and eating disorder recovery should include exercise. The tricky part is that for many folks with an eating disorder exercise has been a form of self-punishment or a way of “burning off calories”. You may have over-exercised or you could be struggling with not moving your body.
Yet just like eating disorder recovery means learning how to change our relationship with exercise. Just like we have to learn how to eat in balanced, moderate ways when we enter into recovery, we also have to learn how to exercise in a balanced way. We need to find ways to move our body that feel good. We also have to expand our idea of what “exercise” means. Walking, gardening and doing housework are all forms of movement. The important thing is that we listen to our bodies and fine ways to that feel good. If you’re in recovery or struggling with an eating disorder here are a few tips on how to bring healthy movement back into your life;
-Develop a specific plan with your treatment team
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder it’s important to talk to your treatment team (dietitian, primary care doctor, counselor) about whether or not it’s appropriate to start exercising. If you’ve been abusing exercise as a way to punish yourself or purge calories you might need to stop exercising for a while until your thinking patterns about exercise and your body have healed a bit. It’s also important to be honest with your treatment team about your exercise patterns. Your team’s goal is to help you learn how to move your body in ways that feel physically and emotionally good.
–Avoid Triggering Places & Types of Exercise
For many people gyms or exercise equipment that list calories burned are major triggers. This puts the focus of your work out on how many calories you burned or how many laps you ran, not how your body feels. Gyms may also be triggering if you find yourself body checking others or go to a gym that focuses on weight loss. If you choose to work out with equipment try putting a magazine or towel over your machines screen-this will cover that pesky calories/miles monitor and help you focus on how your workout feels. You can also shop around for a gym that focuses on wellness v. weight loss.
-If You Work with a Trainer Explain Your Recovery Process
Yes it is vulnerable and a little scary to tell others about our recovery process. It’s also extremely important. If you are working with a trainer, coach or fitness teacher explain that you are struggling with an eating disorder. Let them know what is appropriate for your body and ask them to focus on wellness. It’s also important to explain your triggers. It is totally appropriate to ask your trainer or coach to not focus on calories or weight loss.
-Focus on What Feels Good
If you stop by any elementary school at recess you’ll find dozens of kids running, screaming and laughing. As children we know it feels good to move our bodies. It’s fun to play. Sadly when we become adults we often forget this. Movement becomes punishment or something we have to “get through”. Yet focusing on exercise to make our bodies look a certain way or as a form of punishment is de-motivating and definitely not fun. Instead, think of the ways you can move your body that feel good. If you weren’t worried about burning calories how would you like to move? Dance, yoga, walking and housework are all ways we can get exercise. Try to focus on finding and practicing ways to move your body that feel good in the moment and after.