I'd rather have poked myself in the eye than exercise when I first entered eating disorder recovery. When I was ill, I exercised to support my illness's daily demands. So when I was in recovery, I stopped exercising altogether.
Some people in eating disorder recovery find it hard not to exercise obsessively. But, whatever your thoughts on exercising are, exercise is an important part of sustaining wellness, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Finding a balanced approach to exercise is a vital part of our recovery.
5 ways to find balance and make peace with exercise in recovery:
1 - Let go of old beliefs.
Many of us who have had an eating disorder associate exercise with weight loss and control. We have pushed ourselves to excessively exercise or refused to exercise at all —ever. Make peace by scratching everything you thought you knew about exercise and open your mind to building a new relationship with it. Whenever you mind goes to calories or time frames associated with ED, gently ask it to "let go."
2 - Bring curiosity to exercise.
Find balance with exercise by inviting curiosity in and trying new activities that are fun. You may be so used to associating exercise with "have to's" and “should’s” that you don't know what activities you truly find enjoyable. Be willing to try new things. Make a list of the things that you are curious about and try one new activity a week.
3 - Listen to your body.
OK friends, here is a big one: Find balance with exercise by stopping when your body says it's tired. And, if you are still struggling with an eating disorder or are early on in your recovery, set a timer, but only if you have agreed on an amount of exercise with your treatment team. If you are not used to exercising, start with a slow, twenty-minute walk with a friend. Better yet, practice mindful walking out in nature.
4 - Create a safety net.
In ED recovery, our goal is to ultimately get to a place where we feel like we can honor eating when we are hungry and stopping when we are full — with little judgement towards ourselves. However, there has to be a build up to that. There has to be a structure. It's the same with exercise. If you have not incorporated a structure (aka. safety net) around your exercise, do so. Here’s an example: for the first year, I exercised 20 minutes a day, or no more than an hour three times per week. I stuck to this structure so that I did not have to think about it too much. Later in my recovery, I began to honor my body and it told me when to exercise and when not to.
"Allowing others in to help us in those early days of treatment is so challenging, but it's imperative - we cannot achieve recovery alone," says fellow ERC National Recovery Advocate, Jen Lombardi, MFT, CEDS. "As a clinician, I impress the importance of always allowing your support system in, even once you are in recovery. In my own recovery, exercise became a serious struggle after other behaviors subsided. I know first-hand that you must consult with your treatment team first to determine if and when exercise is appropriate. It's difficult to know what moderation is, and having guidance from experts is invaluable."
"We also live in a culture that values the punitive qualities of exercise," adds Lombardi. "As a fitness instructor who is in recovery, I try to challenge this idea. And without the support of my treatment team and family, I doubt I would have been able to bring exercise back into my life in a balanced and joyful way."
5 - Be honest with yourself.
Have you ever noticed that your relationship with exercise is identical to the relationship you have with food? At first it can be a struggle between your eating disorder’s way or your treatment team’s way. The key to finding balance with this struggle is being brutally honest with yourself and your intentions. If exercise is triggering you, speak to your treatment team and start small. Remember: Acting on your eating disorder’s demands is not wellness, it’s part of the illness.
A few months ago, my friend Dana asked me to participate in a half marathon with her. Even before my brain had a chance to think about it, I said "No.” “I hate exercise," I told myself. Later, when I thought more about it, I remembered that my psychiatrist had given me a prescription for exercise. He said that I had to do 20 minutes of it a day, whether I wanted to or not. I have terrible anxiety, and he believed that moving my body would help disperse some of it. So, reluctantly, I said "yes" to Dana and her suggestion of getting a running app.
I started the app that had me mostly walking at first, with small intervals of running. I felt that I was accomplishing something because I could commit to the 20 minutes, but I also had no expectations about what the exercise would give me, which was very different from when I had an eating disorder. Yesterday, I went and bought my first ever pair of running shoes to support my body when running. When my body feels ready, I will do that half marathon with my dear friend, Dana. My body will tell me when it’s ready, not my mind!
How can you find balance and make peace with exercise?
Today, I love moderate exercise and the way it reduces my anxiety. When I opened my mind up to having a different relationship and experience with exercise, I found it to be so emotionally rewarding.
When we do anything in life that is extreme, the universe will seek balance. The pendulum of life swings back and forth until it can find its resting place smack bam in the middle. It takes time to find balance and, for many of us, it will also take the following:
- Gentle reflection
- Making sure that our authentic self is triumphing over ED beliefs
When we are honest with ourselves and willing to invite curiosity in, we can rebuild our relationship with exercise and bring balance into our lives.
Which new activity will you try this week?
Robyn Cruze, MA is National Recovery Advocate and the online community manager for Eating Recovery Center.